Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Processed foods and little pink houses:
why we can't eat in a small town

194 pounds
It's been a while since I've addressed the question of how I can lose weight without dieting, and I need to start getting back to that question. I've already talked about the importance of indulging and making exercise a fun and frequent part of our lives (meaning more than once a day), and I'd like to get through several more tenets of my non-dieting approach over the next few months. The one I want to start talking about first is processed foods—and I say start because this post is only going to talk about why processed foods are more of a problem in our society than I think most people realize.

One of the many problems in our society is what we eat. Many of us know that the quality of what we put in our mouths is as important as the quantity. In his bestselling book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talks about how bad processed foods are for us—they're high in sodium, high in calories, high in trans fats, and have little or no nutritional value. Pollan suggests avoiding these problem foods by shopping only in the outlying areas of the grocery store—the produce section, the meat section, the dairy section—and skipping the middle aisles—where boxed Mac 'n Cheese and canned soup rule. I think we all know that these foods should be avoided, but if we all know this, then why is it that people are still buying these foods? And not just buying them, but buying them en masse?

The answer to this question is more complicated than the fact that these foods taste good or they're easy to make, though those are clearly excuses that many of us make when we buy processed foods. But these aren't the only reasons our country is in the middle of a huge obesity epidemic.

I recently had the privilege of living in a small rural town in North Carolina called Laurinburg for two years of my adult life. Despite the inherent challenges of living in such a remote area, I believe that living there was a privilege for two reasons:

1) As anyone who works in academia knows, it is extremely difficult to get a full-time job teaching college English, and I recognize how lucky I was to get one—even if it was in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. (Also, I worked with a number of amazing people, many of whom I hope to be friends with for years to come and who made my life in N.C. richer than one would imagine when looking up Laurinburg on a map.)

2) I also consider it a privilege to have lived in Laurinburg, North Carolina, because, during those two years, I believe I was able to learn more about how regular Americans live than I did in the eleven long years I lived in big cities like Washington, D.C. or Cincinnati.

For instance, I learned that movies don't become blockbusters because moviegoers want to see them. They become blockbusters because of the theatre owners who book them. Because if you live in a town with as little to do as Laurinburg and it's a thirty-minute drive to the closest multiplex, you're more than likely willing to see ANY movie that comes to the run-down two-screen cinema in your town. (What was equally interesting was that while I was living in North Carolina, I always knew what movie would win the weekend box office because it was always the same movie that opened at the theatre in our town that weekend.)

But I also learned a lot about how the average American eats.

When I moved to North Carolina, I had the false sense that we would have access to all kinds of fresh, local food because we'd be living in such a rural area. But if you know anything about the Sandhills of North Carolina, you know that they don't grow food there. They grow tobacco and cotton.

Still, it was a small town, people didn't make a lot of money, almost everything was cheap (housing, movie tickets, tuition), so I figured that food would be affordable too.

In some ways this was true. A huge Wal-Mart Super Center was so centrally located in Laurinburg that almost anyone who lived in the city limits could walk there if need be (and it wasn't unusual to see people doing so). There were a handful of other options for grocery shopping in town: two of them were pretty small and rundown and the third—Harris Teeter—was gorgeous and well stocked but too expensive for us and for most of the people we knew. Of course, if it was too expensive for us—two full-time college professors—it was obviously too expensive for most of the people who lived in Laurinburg. As a result, almost everybody did their grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, and initially we were no exception.

In the beginning, I did my best to focus on Wal-Mart's positive aspects: so many things were affordable (everything from picture frames to DVDs), and you could buy almost anything you needed in one place. But pretty soon I realized that there was one thing I could almost never buy at Wal-Mart without breaking my bank: produce.

Because, though the Mac 'n Cheese and the Ramen Noodles and the Ranch salad dressing were the cheapest I'd ever come across in my life, the grapes and the lettuce and the broccoli were outrageously overpriced. I remember one time I wanted to buy grapes for a get-together we were having at our house, and the regular-sized bag I picked up ended up costing eight dollars. Eight dollars! For grapes!

It was this experience that got me thinking about and paying more attention to the produce prices at Wal-Mart, and once I started really looking at them, I realized that—except for the few items that were on sale each week—the Wal-Mart in Laurinburg, North Carolina was price gouging its produce.*

Of course, I immediately understood that the consequence of this was that people in Laurinburg—especially people who couldn't afford or didn't have time to supplement their Wal-Mart shopping trips with stops at other grocery stores—probably weren't buying or eating as much produce as people in other parts of the country.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I eventually bought almost all of our produce and meat downtown at Findlay Market every Sunday, and I could do so for thirty bucks a week. I would come home with three huge paper bags stuffed full of fruits and vegetables (and half a bag of fish, chicken, and beef) and be shocked by how far our money would go there. But if I wanted to buy three bags of produce at Wal-Mart in rural North Carolina, I'd probably spend about four times as much doing so.

Not long after I figured out that Wal-Mart was making up for what they lost on frozen pizza by charging more for apples and oranges, I attended a Fourth of July celebration in nearby Maxton, North Carolina.

If I had thought Laurinburg was small, Maxton soon proved me wrong. In fact, it wasn't unusual for people from Maxton to drive the five miles to Laurinburg for an evening of cheap movies and fast food.

One of the things that I immediately noticed at the Maxton Fourth of July celebration was that it felt as if almost everyone there was obese.

Obese and poor.

As I had become used to seeing (even in a fancy grocery store like Harris Teeter), children were running around without their shoes on and many of them were in need of a bath and wearing old and ripped clothing. No, not everyone there fit this description, but most did, and in my Gap jeans and espadrilles, I stood out almost as much as Paris Hilton at a church revival. And I also noticed that, unlike other town festivals I'd been to, there were no rides or games, no Scrambler or Ring Toss. There was only one pathetic looking inflatable bouncing machine, the kind you see gracing suburban backyards for the birthday parties of kids who've never heard of, much less seen, places like Maxton.

Like many Americans, I immediately wondered how it was that people who appeared to be so poor were also so obese. How people who were clearly not rolling in money were spending so much of what they did have on food.

Then it it all came together for me: these people were not spending a lot of money on food. They were just spending it the wrong way. They weren't obese because they were pigging out at every meal; they were obese because every meal was high in sodium and calories and trans fats. They were overweight because they could afford as much Mac 'n Cheese as their hearts desired, but grapes were not in the budget.

Nevertheless, I knew that Wal-Mart was not alone in making the people of Maxton obese.

McDonalds—which was the only place open 24 hours a day in Laurinburg and which frequently had a drive-through line that extended into the street—and Burger King and Wendy's and Park Grill and Taco Bell and KFC and all of the twenty or so fast food restaurants in Laurinburg were complicit as well. Because in Laurinburg, not only couldn't you buy foods rich in iron like spinach and blueberries without spending five dollars, you also couldn't buy a healthy meal in a restaurant unless you went to the only fancy sit-down restaurant in town, a place where a salmon dinner costs around twenty dollars, a price far too high for most of the people who live there. But you could go to one of many fast food restaurants and get a 1000-calorie value meal for around three bucks and maybe even feed a family of three for the same price as that bag of grapes.

The eight-dollar grapes weren't the only reason I stopped going to Wal-Mart (a documentary called The High Cost of Low Prices also played a big role in that decision), but it was basically the final straw. And my goal here isn't to convince people to stop going to Wal-Mart (though that would be a nice side effect of this blog). My real goal is to point out how many people in this country—the people who live in places where Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker will never play—don't have very many choices about what they eat. Essentially, they eat what they're given, and the result is that many, many, many of them are obese.

I used to be surprised by how many more people in this country are now considered obese—especially by the increase in childhood obesity—and I used to believe that these people were just lazy and undisciplined. But after living two years in the middle of nowhere, the numbers don't surprise me anymore. It's not that these people—adults and kids alike—want to eat food that is so bad for them. It's that, sadly, they don't have much of a choice.

*I have not done an exhaustive study of the produce prices at Wal-Marts across America, but I do believe that one of the biggest contributors to obesity in this country is that fresh produce costs more than processed foods.


  1. Amen to this entire post!

    I gained more weight in three months in Laurinburg, North Carolina than I did in three months in Italy, land of pasta and dessert at every meal. (And another gelato on the way home.)

    Even the college cafeteria is full of processed food. Good luck finding a vegetable that didn't come out of a can or the deep freeze. There is the salad bar, of course, but it's usually full of the saddest-looking produce in the state.

    I used to think the "processed food is bad for you" movement was just hyperbole from foodies and people who were obsessed with their weight, but I've since come around. After seeing a neurologist for my apocalyptic migraines, I discovered that they're caused at least in part by food additives. I'm not going to say that I only eat fresh food now, but it's certainly something I strive for.

  2. Glad to hear that I'm not the only one who struggled with my weight in Laurinburg. Driving past that huge row of fast food restaurants twice a day was a big problem, especially when you could eat there for $2 or $3 off the dollar menu.

    I definitely think processed foods are a HUGE problem, and I'll be writing more about that--instead of small town food choices--tomorrow.

    Thanks, Em!

  3. Molly - I'm still catching up on your blogs, but had to jump in on this post - I remember standing in line at the Food Lion in Raeford, enraged near tears that orange juice was nearly 4 dollars a half-gallon, while processed orange "drink" - the kind in little plastic/waxy bottles, was 12 bottles for a dollar. it just struck me as exhaustingly unfair that mothers/fathers/partners wanting to provide healthy food for their families would be faced with these choices on their budget.

    i feel really fortunate to have moved to another small town that actually has affordable fresh fruit/veg food stands... so many don't.