Today Cheryl and I had to do laundry so we walked down to Da Wash House on Joseph E. Boone Blvd. It was about a mile walk down streets of Bankhead that we have not been to yet. This place truly is fascinating. As much as half of the houses and apartment buildings are abandoned and falling apart. The major difference between vacancy here and in an upper income neighborhood is that there the buildings are maintained. Here they are being left to be absorbed back into the earth by nature. The trees are growing wild, the vines are creeping into every opening of the house, and animals and insects have turned the nooks and crannies into their own homes. Many are boarded up to keep people out and to keep people from living in them. Others have wide open doors and windows while some have entirely open sides of the house.
Here are some photos:
In part I love how wild the neighborhood is. There is so much green space, so many little forests to explore, and so much space for all the creatures we share the earth with. The main road here is a noisy polluted mess but once you get back onto any of these side streets it has a feel of being in the Southern country side.
Of course I also feel some sadness looking at all the crumbling dreams. So much hard work and effort went into these homes all to be lost because of financial troubles. This is a side of the “US American Dream” that I think would be very worthwhile for every citizen to see. 5 or 10 years ago nobody in these houses would have thought their home would be crumbling to the ground and rotting out in just a few years. But the truth is that a form of this is happening to millions of US Americans all over the country in all neighborhoods, not just low income. It’s a common thread I have seen through all of my travels in the United States this year. Nobody thinks it could happen to them but a huge number of US Americans are just a few missed paychecks away from losing everything that they think they own. As a nation we are living beyond our means and as individuals many of us are as well. This neighborhood could very well serve as a representation of what we’ll be seeing more of in my lifetime. There is already more of this going on than most of us would care to believe.
At the laundromat I asked the woman working where I might be able to find some fresh fruits and vegetables. She told me that there was a store called Green Grocery just down the street. She seemed pretty certain that I’d be able to find some produce there. Before we walked out another woman made sure to tell me to be careful. A guy had been shot in the face two nights ago in front of a nearby store. He died in the ambulance. Another guy had been shot in the arm and leg just a few nights before. They didn’t know why. As I was walking out I told them to sell my clothes if I didn’t make it back. It was reassuring that they laughed and told me to stop kidding around and I will definitely be back.
The Green Store was a beautiful little shop from the outside but upon entering I definitely wondered where they got the name from. There was not much “green” about it. I did find some tomatoes and lettuce in a fridge but that was for their little sandwich counter and wasn’t for sale.
When I asked them about produce they seemed really confused but it turned out that they just didn’t speak English. My Spanish came in very handy here. They had a couple peaches behind the counter that they would have sold us but they had just bought them at Walmart so they would have been much more expensive for me to buy I’m sure. That was that for the Green Store having fresh produce. They did have rice, beans, and oatmeal and as far as I can tell this was all purchased from the Walmart a few miles away. Some it was Great Value brand and from what I see on the internet that is a Walmart store brand.
What I’ve learned during my time here is that even when you can find healthy food in low income neighborhoods like Bankhead, it is often more expensive than at grocery stores outside the neighborhood. This only makes the problem worse. Not only is healthy food nearly impossible to find in the neighborhood but what does exist is much more expensive. Lentils at this little food mart were 150% more expensive, black beans 212% more expensive, and oatmeal 296% more expensive than what I found outside of the neighborhood. The lentils are $1.59/lb. compared to $1.06/lb. The black beans are $2.27/lb. compared to $1.07/lb. The oats are $2.66/lb. compared to $0.90/lb. This is compared to the average price between Walmart, Aldi, Food for Less, and Piggly Wiggly, all of which I’ve shopped at via public transportation from where I am staying. I knew that healthy food would be more expensive in these little food marts but this is absurd.
Talking to the workers at the store, they said that if I wanted to get fresh fruits and vegetables I should go to Walmart. The next place I went was a Family Dollar.
This is another Family Dollar from the one that I visited on the first day. They had brown rice, pinto beans, olive oil, and peanuts and the prices here were actually comparable to the large grocery stores. But since they have nothing in the way of fresh produce there really is no point in shopping here since I can get these few items at the grocery store where I get the fresh produce. I asked the workers there where to get fresh produce. The woman at the checkout told me to take Uber to Publix and the man stocking the shelves really didn’t know. In a confused tone his response was, “like apples and oranges?” For the most part people are fairly boggled by the question of where to get fresh fruits and veggies but plenty of them do come up with an answer after some pondering.
I visited a total of 6 stores while my laundry sat waiting in the washer (and it sat there for quite some time. Here’s some of the stores to give you an idea of what people here deal with.
Some corner store that didn’t seem to have a name:
Vinecity managed to blow me away. Many of the beans were past the “best by” date by about 2 years!
And the sticky pack of lentils that were 2 years past the date were $3.05 per pound. That’s 3 times more expensive than at an actual grocery store. So not only is it way more expensive but it is also lower quality food as well. I would like to note that although this food was past the “best by” date they were not in any way dangerous for people to eat. It’s important to know that these dates are not created or enforced by a government agency. They are created by the manufacturers and are more about peak freshness than actual food safety. The USDA and the FDA even explain on their websites the length of time products are still good for after these dates and that food CAN be sold after these dates. Suggested sell by dates are a suggestion and “best by” is not “bad after.” Beans are good for years past the date on the package.
When I was on my way out of the front door I noticed a couple bananas at the checkout counter so I decided to ask the attendant behind the bullet proof glass window some questions. The bananas were 2 for $1 which is at least twice the price at a grocery store and he said he bought them at Sam’s Club. I asked if people actually buy them and he said, “They do now. They didn’t before I started telling people that it is healthy to eat fruit everyday.”It was sort of ironic that he was talking to people about eating healthy food yet running a store with almost nothing but junk food. I asked if his customers eat any healthy food and he said, “Nothing but junk food.” He lives outside the community and said he eats healthy at home. He said there’s not really anything healthy to eat around here.
While out on our walk Cheryl and I stopped into 6 different grocery stores and they were all pretty much exactly the same. The last one that we walked into was especially barren though and people were smoking cigarettes inside.
This was the one that actually said produce in big letters outside. I wonder if at some point they sold produce or if it was just some standard window sticker they bought.
By now I feel confident saying that in order to eat healthy in a food desert, or at least in this one, you have to leave the community to get the food. For some that would mean driving or getting a ride with someone who has a car, for others public transportation, for others possibly walking. Whatever the means you’d have to do your grocery shopping outside of the community. The exceptions to this would be if there is an awesome program that brings healthy food into the community, a huge urban gardening program, or if someone were to be dedicated enough to grow a large amount of food.As it is now I think its safe to say that most people who want to eat healthy have to get out of the food desert to do their grocery shopping. I asked David Young, a very knowledgeable volunteer urban gardener in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, what he thought about this and he said. “I agree that you have to leave the food desert to find healthy food. One of the primary USDA criteria to be called a food desert is that healthy food is not available, at a reasonable distance, at a reasonable cost.” So when you look at it that way of course it’s a no-brainer. I just had to learn and see it for myself which I definitely have this month. The following is the USDA’s description of what a food desert is. “Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
These challenges of cost and accessibility seem to really be getting the best of most people that I’ve met. So far Cheryl and I are yet to find someone who eats an exceptionally healthy diet here in Bankhead.