Nutritional Dystopia 

A visit to the stores of West Oakland shows why the least affluent are the most overweight.

As one heads south on Shattuck Avenue from Chez Panisse, the fetching odors of North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto are soon left behind. Into South Berkeley, veering right on Adeline Street, one passes the mammoth Berkeley Bowl grocery, with its cavernous selection and befuddling array of produce and imported treats. Further south, the upscale restaurants and grocers melt away. Under 580 and into Ghost Town in West Oakland, desperate-looking liquor stores occupy the corners with cracked signs that advertise alcohol and convenience. Here in the belly of West Oakland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the bay, you won't hear shoppers asking if their produce is organic -- they're lucky if the local store stocks fresh fruit and vegetables at all.

As the public alarm sounds over the nation's obesity epidemic, the most disturbing paradox about our expanding waistline remains largely hidden: The less you have, the fatter you'll likely become. Historically, a big paunch has signaled material success. But in America today, being excessively overweight marks you as living in the grip of poverty, from poor whites in rural West Virginia to struggling African Americans in urban communities such as West Oakland.

On the corner of 12th and Peralta streets sits Bay Area Market Liquors, just inside the border of West Oakland's hardscrabble Lower Bottom. One recent evening, kids chased each other with two-by-fours in front of the store as the adults sat on stoops, observing bemusedly. Inside the market, banks of coolers chilling beer and soda tower over what food the store offers: a cornucopia of chips, candy, and processed foods. Nary a head of lettuce or banana to be found. The freshest offering? Fried chicken, which simmered suspiciously under the glow of heat lamps.

"Gimme a quarter!" yelled a young boy to no one in particular. He's got the right idea. Just a handful of quarters could purchase quite a bit at Bay Area Market Liquors -- almost all of it shot through with high-fructose corn syrup, along with other empty calories. Dozens of markets like this store feed West Oakland, while just one full-fledged supermarket serves the community. And it sits in the far southeast corner of the neighborhood, far away from most.

Many of the West Oakland residents lucky enough to own a car choose to leave the community to shop for groceries, often flocking to the enormous Pak'N Save, just across the border in Emeryville. Pak'N Save does offer shoppers an adequate produce section, although massive stacks of potatoes and onions tend to take center stage. Dwarfing the fresh-foods departments, aisle after aisle of prepackaged, processed foods span the length of the sprawling store. Obese women navigate the aisles, children in tow, their carts crammed with cookies, chips, soda, and imitation cheese.

Why, when Pak'N Save has a much wider selection of healthy foods than any corner market could ever imagine, do customers still tend to purchase the most harmful foods -- only now in bulk? The answer is most likely price. Even when healthier foods are available, they're often more expensive than junk food. The soda, on sale, is cheaper than bottled water, and cookies are more affordable than fruit.

In the face of this nutritional dystopia, local activists are providing access to affordable, healthy food. "We're getting people food they need for longevity," says David Roach, codirector of the Mandela Farmers' Market. Setting up shop every Saturday next to the West Oakland BART station, the market has booths overflowing with a dazzling variety of greens. But on one sunny afternoon, only a few customers -- mostly white, twenty-something hipster-types -- were browsing. Roach, whose dreadlocks flowed from beneath his knit cap, sat behind a folding table and seemed undeterred by the lack of business, as if he was willing to wait as long as it takes for things to change.

What will it take to change the food environments in areas such as West Oakland? A restructuring of agricultural subsidies, which now encourage massive overproduction of crops such as corn and soy -- the building blocks of processed food -- could be retooled to bring healthy, affordable produce to the poor. Smaller efforts could help, too. Neighborhoods like West Oakland don't necessarily need the gourmet brought to their doorsteps. Those suffering from obesity could benefit greatly from enjoying even a fraction of what their neighbors in the Gourmet Ghetto find every day when they step out their doors.

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