Baruch Ben-Yehudah leans out the sliding window of his food truck in a parking lot in Capitol Heights, a neighborhood that government officials have recently described as a “food desert.”
“Free! Chicken and macaroni and cheese,” he calls. “Come get your free samples.”
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.
Elsewhere in the region, food deserts also exist in some parts of Northeast and Southeast Washington, some sections of Lorton and Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, parts of Washington Grove in Montgomery County, and sections of Dale City in Prince William County.
In Prince George’s, county officials say they are working to eliminate food deserts. They are in continued discussions with supermarket chains to establish stores in neighborhoods inside the Beltway. There are plans to open a Whole Foods in 2015 in Riverdale Park.
Howard Ways, executive director of the Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority, says more urban gardens and farmers markets can be part of the solution, too. The county recently gave a $50,000 community impact grant to the nonprofit Eco City Farms to create an urban farm in Bladensburg, where the produce would be sold on site. Two months ago, a farmers market opened in Suitland.
“Urban farms and farmers markets are another way of getting fresh produce to communities that lack access,” Ways says.
Some food deserts look nothing like deserts at all. Near the Capitol Heights shopping plaza where Ben-Yehudah founded his restaurant, there is a line of fast-food hamburger outlets, a fried-fish purveyor, a chain doughnut shop and a restaurant that sells pancakes. There are liquor and wine stores and stores that serve food from behind thick panes of plastic. But there is not a major grocery store or market that sells fresh food.
“This doesn’t even qualify as food,” says Ben-Yehudah, 47, gesturing at the choices. “It’s empty calories with side effects. That is an injustice. Food is a basic necessity. There is a relationship between the bad-for-you-diet and societal ills.”
The Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit agency that studies health, recently released a report showing that people who live in lower-income neighborhoods often have to shop at convenience stores that do not offer affordable fruits and vegetables.
“These same neighborhoods frequently have high rates of diet-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes,” the report says. “Although providing access to healthy foods may not immediately reverse these problems, access to healthy food choices is one of many factors contributing to good health.”
As Ben-Yehudah pulls out of the strip mall’s parking lot, he passes a Checkers and a Popeyes. Their proximity is irresistible to many people, he says. “If I’ve got to go 10 blocks to get something healthy, and I can go a half a block and eat something unhealthy, a half-block wins out,” he says.
Ben-Yehudah turns on Martin Luther King Avenue and parks.
“I see a community that was left without, underserved,” he says. “It is gross what is being done to our people. But rather than curse the darkness, I made it a mission of Everlasting Life to shine that light.”
Ben-Yehudah started his restaurant 18 years ago after he had an epiphany. While setting up speakers at a food conference, he heard one of the speakers practicing her speech. “She said, ‘If you can control a man’s food, you can control a man.’ That statement triggered my mind and I thought, ‘Who is controlling my food?’ ”
Ben-Yehudah, who has been a vegan for 35 years, decided to open a business that would provide healthful food. He started a food co-op in the garage of his Temple Hills home, then opened a restaurant on Georgia Avenue. In 2001, Ben-Yehudah opened his restaurant at Kingdom Square Mall in Capitol Heights.
People flock to the restaurant at the corner of a strip mall, which contains a mega-church, a gym and a Christian bookstore. Inside Everlasting Life, clerks serve both steamed and raw greens, vegan macaroni and cheese, tofu, and smoothies sweetened with maple syrup.
“Our food is our medicine,” Ben-Yehudah says. “We call Everlasting Life a ‘hospi-rant,’ a hospital restaurant, and we call the food truck an ambulance.”
In the community, the sign advertising “100 percent vegan” on the food truck is often met with wary glances. “But you get their attention when you say, ‘Free macaroni and cheese and chicken,” Ben-Yehudah says.
LaShawn Perry, who works as a server on the food truck, takes a tray, arranges cups of mac and cheese and chicken and walks across the parking lot in her apron.
“Would you like a sample? We are from Everlasting Life. We don’t use any meat or any animal byproducts.”
Darren Miller, who has just left a pharmacy with a bag of medicine, tastes the chicken. “It was nice,” Miller says. “I’m not a vegetarian, but I need to be. I can’t eat too much meat, because I was just diagnosed with gout and gout is nothing to play with.”
He has had two episodes in two months. “My feet swell up,” says Miller, 48, who is retired on disability and lives in Capitol Heights. “You literally have to crawl around your house. My whole way of eating has to change. I have what they call the triple threat — high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. I really have to change my diet.”
But Miller, who does not have a car, says it is hard to eat healthy near home: “The nearest good grocery store is about a mile down the street. It’s on the bus line.”
Just then, Robert Erkhart Jr., 61, a retired construction worker, walks up to the truck and takes a sample.
“Y’all in the right neighborhood,” Erkhart proclaims.
Erkhart, who lives in Capitol Heights, says he has recently had heart surgery to fix four blockages. “I almost had a heart attack,” Erkhart says. “I know what I can and can’t eat. The macaroni and cheese is good. The tofu, or whatever it was, was nice and tender.”
The hours pass and more people, with one ailment after the other, approach the truck. Ben-Yehudah tries to inspire them to eat a version of food he believes will help them heal. When it is time to leave, he pulls out of the parking lot.
Ben-Yehudah looks back: “I am seeing a body of people. They had all moving parts, but you could tell there is an absence of good nutrition. I would say those people are in the midst of a famine in a food desert. ”