A man in a red hat walks up and takes a sample cup. “This is delicious right here,” says James Himbrick, 59, a disabled construction worker. He gives a taste to his wife, Denise Smith, who asks what kind of chicken it is.
“You want to know what kind of chicken that is?” asks Ben-Yehudah, the owner of Everlasting Life Restaurant in Capitol Heights. “We raise our chicken in a way that nobody else does on the whole planet.”
Ben-Yehudah — who has made it his mission to get people to eat more healthfully in a county where 70 percent of adults are obese or overweight and where 71 percent of restaurants are fast-food outlets — pauses for dramatic effect. “That chicken is made from vegetables.”
“Vegetables?” Himbrick repeats. “You mean not all that garbage-eating, mess-eating chicken? This is good. I just finished beating cancer for my kidney. And I need to eat good food.”
Over the next two hours, a stream of people approach the truck in Capitol Heights, one of the areas the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a food desert earlier this summer. Some describe their battles with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gout, heart disease and other ailments that can be related to diet. But not everyone owns a car or lives within walking distance of a grocery store — which is how the USDA determines who resides in a food desert.
“We define food deserts as areas that are low-income and low-access” to healthful foods, says Michele Ver Ploeg, economist for the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Low access depends on the distance to the nearest supermarket or large grocery store and how many households do not have a vehicle and are at least half a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”
About 5.7 million U.S. households live a half-mile or more from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. But whether that actually affects people’s weight and health is a matter of debate. Last year a Rand Corp. study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found no link between the kind of food available near the homes of 13,000 children in California and whether they were overweight.
The idea that supermarkets prevent obesity — a centerpiece of the “food desert” narrative — is “wishful” thinking, says the author of the study, Roland Sturm, senior economist and professor of policy analysis at the Pardee Rand Graduate School.
“Supermarkets are extremely good at providing soft drinks, candy, cookies at low prices,” Sturm says. “Fundamentally, having supermarkets nearby isn’t going to make you thin. ”
The government, however, still analyzes which communities have limited access to grocery stores. In July, the USDA identified 10 food deserts in Prince George’s County, one of the country’s most affluent majority-black jurisdictions. Parts of Berwyn Heights, College Park, Landover Hills, Seat Pleasant, New Carrollton, Capitol Heights, District Heights, Temple Hills and Forest Heights qualified.