Nutrition and Eating

From A Desert to an Oasis: Processed Food and Fresh Produce in Cincinnati

A lot of people in Cincinnati live in a desert, but it’s not the kind of desert you’re familiar with – we do have a river after all.

Many Cincinnatians live in food deserts. A food desert is an area where people live but has no grocery store. More specifically, someone is living in a food desert if they must travel more than one mile from home to get fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result, many families rely on pre-packaged, processed, and high-calorie foods to keep them going.

“Overly processed foods are full of empty calories, which are just carbs and fat. These are things that are readily absorbed and add to a person’s weight with less nutritional benefit,” says Dr. David Dhanraj, the Medical Director of TriHealth Faculty Medical Centers. “Unfortunately, a lot of the food we recommend to patients to help improve their health doesn’t exist for them nearby.” This can lead to negative health outcomes and shorten lifespans.

So food deserts aren’t as barren as the Sahara, but our health and wellness can certainly be desolated by them.

What’s so negative about packaged and processed food?

Ultra-processed food includes sugary snacks and desserts, soda, meat products like chicken nuggets, frozen dinners, and instant noodles or soups. This food has a lot of added fat, sugar, salt and oils. Highly processed foods are dense in calories, so when you eat them you feel full, but the nutritional value is little to none. Eating foods high in sugar and fat can result in obesity, loss of energy, and a myriad of other health concerns including an increased risk of heart disease and gastrointestinal issues. Yikes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Food deserts, with their dunes of processed food, aren’t helping the problem.

“People who live in food deserts are eating things that pre-expose them to serious health issues like diabetes and obesity, which could affect them for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Dhanraj says. This includes all ages, from young children to older adults.

What are the benefits of having accessible fresh produce in our communities?

  • Integrating more fresh produce in to your diet can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. According to Dr. Dhanraj, a salad is a perfect example of what healthy food can do for our bodies: “The calories are less, they’re a bit more filling, and they move through the system.” Julie Wanstrath, a TriHealth dietitian in Perinatal Programs, adds: “Eating fruits and vegetables provides our bodies with very nutritious calories instead of empty calories like many junk foods. They are definitely super foods.”
  • Colorful fruits and vegetables are natural combatants of heart problems because they are naturally cholesterol-free and low-fat. “The soluble fiber in fruits and vegetables may help lower our blood cholesterol level,” Julie says. “And the potassium in fruits and vegetables may help lower high blood pressure, according to the DASH Studies."
  • The fiber in fresh produce gives you more lasting energy and helps with pesky digestive troubles. “Fiber helps keep your digestive system happy. Fruits and vegetables are like nature’s broom, they can help with constipation,” Julie says.
  • Reducing fat intake and having a nutritionally balanced diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk for diabetes and hypertension. “Fruits and vegetables also provide many minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that help lower the risk of many types of cancers,” Julie adds.

“Overall, having a lifestyle that includes fresh produce and healthy foods can create sort of a virtuous cycle of being able to be more active because you feel better and you’re losing weight and you have food that provides the right nutrition,” Dr. Dhanraj says.

So how do we turn Cincinnati from a food desert to an oasis?

Access to fresh food is directly connected to good health. “It’s just the whole idea of trying to be more holistic in how we think of medicine,” Dr. Dhanraj says. “You know, it’s not just what we do at the doctor’s office, it’s about whether people can execute all the things that we talk about to improve health and wellbeing.”

The Healthy Harvest Mobile Market is one Cincinnati community initiative that brings fresh produce to the neighborhoods and families that need it most. The truck travels to different TriHealth locations across the Tristate area and provides people with low-cost, local fruits and vegetables every day of the week. It’s an oasis on wheels.

In addition, anyone who buys food from the mobile market with a food assistance benefits card will receive extra veggies. For every five dollars spent on produce with the card, Produce Perks puts an extra five dollars towards more produce in the same purchase.

To learn more about the Healthy Harvest Mobile Market and where to find it, and about everyone who is making healthy eating easier in Cincinnati, visit the website, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. If you want some tips on how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in to your diet before your next grocery trip, take a look at the websites below for recipe ideas and more facts:

Tags Nutrition and Eating