'An apple a day keeps the doctor away.' This old proverb addresses the positive effect that fruits can have on a person’s health. Michelle Obama recently unvieled the new health diet food plate that replaces the old food pyramid. It emphasizes lots of fresh produce daily. Studies have demonstrated that diets rich in fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of many chronic diseases. But in Salinas, that's easier said than done. Though the Salinas Valley is a leader in the agriculture industry - with 1.5 million acres of agriculture land - some of the people that live and grow the food in the Salinas Valley don’t have access to the healthy foods they produce.
Salinas is a 'food desert,' an area where healthy, affordable food is difficult or impossible to obtain. Convenience stores, which are also known as corner stores or bodegas, are the most accessible markets for these households. But for the most part, they provide unhealthy food and beverage options and don't carry much fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low-income minority communities and can occur in both rural and urban areas. A study conducted in the Central Coast by The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems identified parts of Monterey County, including Salinas, as food deserts. These areas include the Highway 128 corridor that runs from Salinas through Seaside, parts of Marina and Seaside, and the Highway 101 corridor that runs through the Salinas Valley.
In areas where food deserts are prevalent there are many dietary problems. In Salinas the rate of illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are on the rise. Early childhood obesity is also a problem.
“My son is only 10 years old and he has high cholesterol," says a resident of Salinas who did not want her name revealed. "The doctor put him on a diet during his last visit. We don’t have time to go to the grocery store during the week because we work all the time and we don’t have a family car. The kids end up eating the food that they have access to: junk food or fast food that they buy on the way home from school.”
Transportation is also a barrier. In 2009, a United States Department of Agriculture national study found that “2.3 million households do not have access to a car and live more than a mile from a supermarket.” People who do not have any means of transportation or rely on public transportation are often hesitant to take a trip to the grocery store, which can be expensive and time consuming. Instead of eating fresh fruits and vegetables they are forced to eat high caloric and high fat foods from various fast-food restaurants that are within walking distance from home.
Various organizations are trying to increase the supply of healthy food in Salinas. In 2009, the Monterey County Health Department implemented Steps to a Healthier Salinas, a health promotion program that targeted taquerías in Salinas [PDF] in an effort to educate business owners and get them to offer healthy food options as part of their menu selections. In similar efforts, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association, a non-profit organic farm incubator based in Salinas (that I work for), targeted taquerías and corner stores primarily in East Salinas to encourage business owners to change their buying practices to include more fresh local produce, instead of the usual fare of junk food and alcohol. Another program is The Network for a Healthy California’s Champions for Change. Champions of Change is a network of people that address health problems at the family level by promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables and being more physically active at home, in schools, and in neighborhoods.
By promoting healthier food choices and educating the community of Salinas on the prevention of dietary illnesses, these programs aim to create positive change in the community's food deserts.