It looked to be a delightfully healthy meal in the making. There were a dozen eggs, some romaine, an onion, scallions, a bag of rice and black beans, cilantro and — because one lime is truly never enough — seven limes. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Gwyneth Paltrow on poverty.
This queen of Goop, this purveyor of healthy living, this scribe of hot-selling cookbooks, is here to show poor folk how it’s done. Sure, she’s already informed us of the miracles of pseudoscience. She’s already told mothers who work 9 to 5 that they don’t really have it that tough. (At least not Gwyneth tough.) And now, she’s on to the poor. As The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip reported on Monday, Paltrow recently posted a Twitter picture that showed a bounty of healthy food — all of which she bought with $29 as part of a challenge she accepted to raise awareness for the hardships faced by those who live on Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Per the challenge, she has to live on those purchases for one week.
Paltrow’s pic, however, has not gone over well. Critics have hounded her for saying she could live off that healthy haul for entire week, which would require her to go on 1,000 calories per day.
But that doesn’t sum up the totality of what’s wrong with Paltrow’s idea of poverty. Sometimes, eating healthfully isn’t a question of how much money or benefits a person receives — but the distance that separates them from that healthy food. Think about it. Whole Foods is great. So is Trader Joe’s. Same goes for most full-service grocery stores that hawk healthy food. But such stores might as well not even exist if they’re too far to patronize. That is the situation for many low-income residents mired in what’s known as “food deserts.” It’s not money that keeps some low-income residents from eating healthy. It’s distance.
In few cities is this more apparent than in the District, where sprawling food deserts sweep through some of the poorest areas of city, home to some of the city’s 142,000 residents who receive SNAP benefits. More than a mile separates many of these residents from the nearest grocery store, according to a food-desert locator tool provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A mile may not seem like much to some suburbanites, but distances hit the poor especially hard, according to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which in 2010 released a report that offers perhaps the closest look at the issue. “Low-income people, whose budgets already are stretched to meet basic needs, often do not have extra money to pay for additional transportation costs and are most affected by long distances to grocery stores,” the report found. “Low-income District residents also typically have fewer transportation options than higher-income residents.”
Working in these communities, you may run into a lanky man with a slow drawl named Ronnie Webb. He is founder of a local non-profit named Green Scheme, which works to bring healthy food to places where there isn’t much of it.
And nowhere, he said, are there fewer options than in Ward 7 and Ward 8, which as the Department of Agriculture map shows, can be tricky places to rustle up Paltrow-recommended fresh groceries. “It’s very, very difficult out here, especially in the communities we work in,” Webb said in an interview. “One is Lincoln Heights in Ward 7; if you were to go out to that site, you’d only catch a ton of corner stores and carry-out restaurants. 7-Eleven is probably the best thing they got going out here, that and McDonald’s and Wendy’s. … The residents aren’t exposed to any healthy, fresh produce.”
As a result, many local experts draw a direct connection between the paucity of grocery stores and the fact that Southeast DC has the highest obesity rate in the District. “If you go into a lot of these households, you’re going to find that they go back to the store every two or three days and come back with another two-liter bottle of soda,” Webb said. “This is a double-headed snake: It’s one because there’s no choice here for healthier eating. And it’s two because there’s no organization to make a change.”
The cruelty of poverty is that those who have the least capacity to purchase food also often live the farthest from it. There’s a “clear gap in access to full-service grocery stores in the District of Columbia,” the Hunger Solutions report concluded. “The ‘grocery gap’ — particularly between higher-income and lower-income wards in the District — results in food deserts across the District, which particularly affects low-income areas. Food deserts also may be contributing to the District’s alarming rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related chronic illness.”
To be sure, this isn’t a problem unique to the District. Roughly 23.5 million people are marooned in food deserts, more than 13.5 million of whom are low-income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And although more resources for healthy eating have ventured into new District neighborhoods, Jen Adach of D.C. Hunger Solutions wrote in an e-mail, it’s unclear if it’s enough.
“A lot of these people in these communities don’t have the top quality foods you’d find at a farmers market, because a lot of farmers don’t want to come out here, where they don’t sell a lot of their produce,” Webb said.
And it’s difficult to eat like Gwyneth Paltrow — whether she’s on food stamps or not — if you can’t even get fresh produce.