How to eat a more plant-based diet when you live in a food desert
October is Vegetarian Awareness Month.
Do you remember where you were when Netflix’s What The Health sent the internet into a tizzy of thinkpieces, and 9 out of every 10 of your Facebook friends converted to veganism? I am certain that I was somewhere eating a chicken burrito, and I have yet to rid my refrigerator of eggs, because I love eggs.
I’m not here to tell you to repent for your morning omelets or to scare you away from the occasional hamburger. I’m also not here to scoff if you have successfully transitioned to plant-based lifestyle amazingness.
For Vegetarian Awareness Month, I’m speaking directly to those people who aren’t quite ready to give up all animal-based products and fear that their lifestyles might make veganism too restrictive of a diet.
As per usual for my writing here on HG, I’m all about offering a different perspective on social issues and providing a healthy dose of side eye, and the financial and geographical barriers to diets like veganism and vegetarianism are subject to said side-eye.
It has long been proven that eating foods that come directly from the soil and undergo little to no processing are better for overall health.
But you know what is often missing from conversations surrounding plant-based eating? Food deserts.
We need to discuss how food deserts and poverty often keep nutritious eating as a privilege for members of a certain income tax bracket. While it may seem that members of the wealthy class (looking at you Gwyneth Paltrow) have issued challenges making somewhat of a spectacle of poverty and access to nutrition, the reality is that approximately 23.5 million people live in food deserts.
As explained by DoSomething.org, food deserts are "geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (aka fresh fruits and veggies) is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away."
Sometimes, the $29 grocery budget struggle is real while you’re trying to feed one’s self and an entire family. Sometimes, in a food desert, you’re lucky if you are able to find fresh produce that isn’t bruised or of low quality.
I live in one of these areas. Lately, I’ll occasionally feel fancy enough to make a Trader Joe’s run or put money back into local farmer’s markets. Still, I have to go to at least three different grocery stores in order to find a healthy balance of proteins, fruits, and veggies without busting my weekly grocery budget.
Whole Foods still isn’t an option for me, but gentrification is also a thing. There is no shortage of trendy, organic grocery chains popping up in low-income neighborhoods, which are useless if residents can’t afford their products.
It blows my mind that I can essentially purchase a full entree and drink from a fast food restaurant for about half the price of a pound of organic apples from a health food grocery store.
Yet we are often quick to judge those who have no choice but to consume mostly processed foods because it could mean the difference between affording other necessities or not.
I grew up eating processed products like SPAM and consuming juice that was more food coloring than fruit (and was cheaper than bottled water). It was all my working class mom could afford.
Because of my experiences, I have learned ways to finesse more plant-based foods into my diet, and I’d like to share them with you.
These five tips are just a start for those who want to consider vegetarianism or more conscious eating. Hopefully, they’re a way to reframe the conversation around the more one-dimensional depictions of healthy eating we constantly see.
1Take advantage of frozen fruits and vegetables.
I choose the $1.99 bag of frozen kale over the fresh $3.49 bag every time. Frozen fruits and vegetables are almost always comparable in nutritional value to their fresh counterparts.
2Buy in bulk (when possible).
If healthy snacks ever go on sale — particularly if those snacks are freeze-dried, frozen, or canned — stock up for the winter. Or fall. Or spring. Or whenever. Although canned foods sometimes get a bad rap, you can often get low-sodium versions of some canned beans and veggies. Plus, before consuming, you can always rinse off the beans/veggies to cut down on some of the salt.
3Freeze your produce.
Are your bananas on their way out? Is your kale is looking pale? Get thee a freezer bag and preserve your produce for things like soups or smoothies.
4Plan your meals.
If the closest market with decent quality food requires a commute, then limit the number of trips you have to make in a month. Go to the market prepared with meal ideas that meet your needs (and are as healthy as your budget allows), and stick to a list.
5Reclaim your food access.
If you receive public assistance like SNAP, those funds can be used to purchase seeds and vegetable plants. The gap between healthy eating and food insecurity doesn’t seem to be closing any time soon, so educating yourself about gardening or growing your own food — especially for those living in inner cities — might be the only way to reclaim your right to healthy and whole foods.