Home The Recessionista Location, Location, Location: Money’s Not The Only Barrier To Healthy Living

Location, Location, Location: Money’s Not The Only Barrier To Healthy Living

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I can remember when I lived in Texas, in an area where the only “major” grocery store was a Walmart, which had wiped out almost all the competition within a 10 mile radius. I couldn’t get all the way out to that walmart without a car, and because I was new to the area I couldn’t figure out the public transportation system. I was shopping for my groceries – literally – at a gas station. My daughter was an infant at the time and, because I was “smart,” I ordered her formula in bulk and had it shipped in. Me, I figured, I could just shop for my needs at the gas station… and through the local delivery joints.

Every week, it was some combination of Papa John’s, Jimmy John’s, and whatever I could scrounge up from the gas station. I ordered so often that, upon giving my number to the employee, they’d immediately know what my order was. I can even remember the point where a wave of embarrassment washed over me… and I simply started placing my orders online.

I can even recall the lowest of my low points, one weekend when I knew I wouldn’t be paid until the following Monday, had only about $10… and had to have something to eat in order to get by. I bought a gallon of Blue Bell ice cream, and rationed that out until pay day.

Yes, it’s no wonder that I’d gotten up to over 300lbs, right?

When I first started wanting to cook healthier, it came at the suggestion of my dear sorority sister (and bridesmaid!), Tashie (well, that’s what I call her), that we go to the store together. I didn’t have a car, and she knew I had Mini-me with me, so she offered to help us out. Yes. She’s that kind of awesome.

She was the one who put me onto the idea of eating and not using processed food. “My family doesn’t buy that shit. We use alllllllllllllll fresh vegetables. We don’t play that.”

“Uh, yeah, but I’own know how to cook all that.”

“That’s okay. Baby steps.”

I’d saved up all my money for this trip. I was going to buy everything I needed… and I did. I spent almost $150 on this one measly trip to the grocery store. And, as soon as we’d left, I’d asked her to stop by the Checker’s across the street so that I could get something to eat.

“Hell no – you just went to the grocery store. What are you buying this shit for?”

She didn’t even turn the corner in that direction. She’d also spent the entire ride home making it clear to me – there would be no fast food on my healthy living journey.

Well, alright, then.

We’d gotten home, and she helped me put the food away. We talked about what they ate like in her household, and it compelled me to do a lot – a lot – of thinking. Would I lead a household the same way her family did? Could I?

One week’s take away of fresh, carry-home-able groceries.

I ate a lot of raw meals, simply because I didn’t really know how to cook much of what I’d bought. Sure, I could par-fry some chicken thighs, but I couldn’t do much else, and it was obvious. Mini-me was always happy as long as she was with Mommy, and we suffered through most of those “struggle meals” together. The only thing I could really master early on was stir-fry. The right veggies, some ginger and sea salt? I was golden.

But eventually, the food runs out and you’ve got to go back to the store, right?

I’d text Tashie and ask if she could come back but, um, she has her own life and her own responsibilities. I didn’t own a car, and I was a thousand miles away from my family. How was I supposed to get to the grocery store?

I’d ran down the list of people I could call and ask to take me, but who could drive all the way out to where I was on such short notice? Who’s sitting around just waiting for me to ask them to run me somewhere? Furthermore, who wants to be that kind of a pain in the ass?

I’d eventually have to figure something out. After that moment with the Blue Bell Weekend, I’d decided that I would have to simply call a taxi cab to deliver me to and drop me off from the grocery store. Sure, it’d cut almost $20 out of my grocery budget, but I could not subsist on blue bell alone. I did that one time before I moved from Texas altogether. Clearly, I’d have to revisit that.

If I were going to become even partially self-sufficient, I’d have to call a cab to take me up the road to the nearest grocery store, and do my shopping… and that’s exactly what I did. I’d saved my money, and tried to buy as much as I could so that I wouldn’t have to make this trip often. Cabs were pricey, and I hated spending money.


All it took was spending one night alone, waiting for almost two hours for a cab to come take my daughter and I home, that I’d realized… I simply couldn’t go on like this. Depending on other people is unpredictable and unreliable, and I couldn’t entrust my (and my child’s!) safety with a cab company.

I had to figure out something. I needed my vegetables and I needed them fresh, just like Tashie said. I needed my… well, everything. I couldn’t wait.

One Wednesday, I paced around my kitchen wringing my hands, trying to debate whether I’d just give up and call someone – a friend, a cab, anyone – to help me do what I needed to do… but damn, I was dying to be independent. I’d been experiencing so much progress with my weight, that I didn’t want to go back to my old habits because it had become clear to me that those habits don’t work. I was working out regularly, eating better, and my little one and I were enjoying our new, more active lives. I needed to show myself that I could get this basic thing done on my own. And, just like that, it hit me.

I grabbed my workout clothes, a duffel bag, and Mini-me’s umbrella stroller. Got her dressed in her lightest clothes, and we put our shoes on together. Strapped her up, and headed out the door. I jogged her to the grocery store, broke down her stroller and put it inside my cart. It served as a polite reminder to not buy too much foolishness, because I couldn’t carry it home. You start looking at a gallon of ice cream a lot differently when you realize it represents almost 10lbs worth of weight you have to carry home. Big bags of chips and dips stop looking like “yum” and start looking like “unnecessary shoulder pain.”

I walked my sweaty, smelly behind through the store, did my shopping, and loaded up my cart. Buying only what I could carry often resulted in me buying just enough food to last for one week, and that’s exactly what I’d do. I’d ask the cashier to load my groceries into my duffel bag, load it across my shoulders, and walk/jog it home. I’ve been doing it that way ever since.

Victory, she is mine.

This is how I learned how to shop on a limited budget. I could only buy, literally, what I could carry. As Mini-me aged out of her little umbrella stroller, I saved up for a fancy pants jogging stroller, which was large enough for me to put one basket on top (where the drinks go) and one basket underneath where her seat rests. Same duffel bag, same weekly schedule. Even when I introduced the almost-hubby into our lives, he had to get with the same program. I don’t “drive” to buy my groceries. I jog it… and I do it weekly.

It obviously has its limitations. If you look at a map of food stamp usage across the US:

The darker the green, the fewer the recipients in that county; the darker the blue, the more food stamp recipients there are in that county.

juxtaposed against Slate’s map of counties with too few grocery stores to accommodate its many citizens:

a dash of an old map of car-less households back from 2000:

and, if you toss in there a map of obesity in the country (presuming that a lack of access to fresh vegetables is a culprit in the “epidemic”):

…and you start seeing a pattern.

If it’s difficult for you to get to where you need to go to get fresh produce easily, you’re probably not going to get fresh produce. If you’ve never known anyone to take a taxi cab to get from a grocery store, you’re probably not going to get to a grocery store.

And, really, let me tell you another little story. Brooklyn is it’s own little ball of grocery store confusion.

There aren’t any supermarkets – supermarkets, not bodegas, not corner store stands and not fruit markets – within at least a four-block radius of my daughter’s school. Tons of little fruit markets, though. Walk inside, and much of the fruit is cut – because the store’s workers have cut or pruned off the rotting parts – but the stores aren’t properly refrigerated, so there’s fruit going bad on the inside and looking fresh on the outside. There’s shelves and displays where, if you pick up a veggie, a cockroach starts running away.

That’s a quick way to be turned off from shopping at your local fruit market, and be turned onto buying from your nearest bodega… which doesn’t specialize in selling anything other than processed food and $4 boxes of 18-pack tampons. It is very easy, mind you, to grow up in an environment like this and think that veggies – the fresh kind that glisten in the light at a fancy pants grocery store – are a privilege of the elites, and not for people like you in your neighborhood.

…that is, unless you live in [what can be considered] the suburbs of Brooklyn, where you’ve got not only fresh produce in properly refrigerated places, but you’ve got them on almost every other corner! (And, with almost 27,000 people living in every square mile of the city, these stores can easily sit next door to each other and still survive.) But we’ve talked about this before.

This, however, is not unlike my mother’s home in Indiana, where there’s a supermarket across the street, half a mile away, .6 of a mile away, a Walmart “super center” next door to that, and a Whole Foods across the street from those. She also has a car to accommodate all of that driving… and shopping.

Our habits, our experiences… they neither form nor exist in a vacuum. Growing up in an area where the only veggie mart is full of cockroaches can result in you growing up on only processed food, and never “developing a taste for” vegetables. It can result in you never learning how to cook these things, and spend a considerable amount of time burning up your pots and pans. I was motivated by the fact that I’d already lost a considerable amount of weight, and wouldn’t have been able to continue on my journey without going to the lengths I did to keep my access. Who else would be that motivated to put that much effort into getting better access? Who would think to consider “how close is it to a grocery store?” as a factor in moving? If you’re on government assistance, can you even afford to think of as much?

Or, how about, if you are among the working poor, do you have time to walk to a grocery store? Do you even care enough to carry your groceries home? And, if you’re among the many people who’ve decided to accept processed food as the sole means of survival, what kind of message does that pass onto your kids? You might’ve chosen to accept that processed food is the way to do it, but your kids may simply never “develop a taste for” veggies. The issue quickly becomes cyclical.

I just… I think we need to consider what kinds of miracles we’re asking people to execute. Sometimes, healthy living simply isn’t just about the money, and our conversations about food justice and sustainability need to better reflect that.

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Lorrie July 24, 2012 - 3:09 PM

Very good Erika, very well done.

Quiana July 24, 2012 - 3:35 PM

I was raised in Ohio and live in NYC and can completely relate to this post. It’s amazing what a car-dependent lifestyle will induce. Strapping my 2-yead old daughter to my back or pushing her in her stroller as I hit the streets of NYC is my fitness plan! I read your response to the Root’s post too and recently I’ve been seeing urban gardening programs for children flourish in underprivileged areas of NYC. That may be a good step too towards healthy eating habits.

Aria July 24, 2012 - 5:02 PM

One good thing about growing up in the Garden State is that although we lived in one of the poorest cities, Camden, we had access to fresh fruits and veggies. There was a good produce market across from Pathmark and Save-A-Lot, which was on a bus route. Produce trucks drove down the streets like the ice cream truck and you could simply walk out and buy. They would start at the farms about and hour away, and later that day, deliver fresh food to our neighborhood. I don’t know what happened to those trucks. They’re not around anymore. As an adult, I work in Camden and the new “community farmer’s markets” suck. The fruit never looks or tastes fresh. I can understand why kids don’t want to buy from the new mobile markets because most of the produce looks gross or old. Our state should definitely be able to do better since there are tons of farms in South Jersey.

V July 24, 2012 - 8:57 PM

During the times I did not have a car or a ride I would take the train from the supermarkets. I was very picky about what food I got. It is so hard not to have a car and shopping for groceries.

Sherise July 25, 2012 - 2:26 AM

Not as nice as super fresh, but frozen veggies work in a pinch! since they’re generally frozen right away after they’re picked, It’s not as ridden with preservatives as canned veggies.

Plus they last longer than regular produce which is perfect for me since I’m only feeding myself and I usually don’t finish things before they go bad. I can get a bunch of frozen broccoli or some veggie medley at the Dollar Tree down the street. Also, seeing how I don’t really like lettuce in the first place, the frozen veggies work for me.

Fruits are still tricky, though.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 25, 2012 - 9:28 AM

Of course, frozen veggies always work, but you’ve got to think about this: if a store doesn’t sell *fresh* produce, what are the chances that it’ll sell *frozen* produce?

Erica July 25, 2012 - 9:54 PM

I co sign on this Erika. Please note that the “frozen” veggies in the local convenience store may have been frozen, defrosted, and frozen again since the original Ice Age (pun intended). Your local store does not necessarily carry freshly frozen items. Secondly, if you don’t have a car and your store is miles away, your so called frozen veggies will be totally defrosed by the time you get home. Still inconvenient. Sidebar – I recently had a partial hysterectomy and was prohibited from driving and moving around, thus totally dependent on family, friends & neighbors for a few weeks (single, no kids). When I ran out of fresh fruits and veggies and no one was immediately available to restock my fresh items as quickly as I was accustomed to, I had a minor wake up call. I had a fully stocked freezer and refrigerator, but running out of fresh spinach and lettuce for my salads and green smoothies totally ticked me off. The minute I got clearance from my doctor, the first thing I did was get in my car and drive to the farmers market (lol). I seriously began thinking about my elderly and incapacitated neighbors who are dependent upon others daily ( in some instances, strangers who are paid to provide them with temporary care) and are not as fortunate as I am. It is no joke not to have access to fresh food. This is a silent crisis that elected officials dismiss.

Ginnette Powell @caffeinehusky July 28, 2012 - 2:41 PM

success is dependent on effort; I have no small children anymore but when I did it was lugging him, his stroller, etc. but it got done. i still don’t have a car and have 3 cats so between a small shopping cart to take on the transit and reusable grocery bags it works but it takes effort!

Kudos to you for doing it and being independent!

Juli July 31, 2012 - 9:58 AM

New reader, first time commenter. Amazing job pulling all the maps together. Me and my equally overweight spouse (we went on a household diet together last week and did great until the ice cream run last. But, hey, we went a week without ice cream!) were looking at the maps together and debating if it’s a correlation or a coincidence. We finally settled “Maybe both” because we’re brilliant like that.

The question that needs to be asked is a chicken / egg question. Are there no grocery stores because the people feel their needs are served by grocery store alternatives or are there grocery store alternatives because there are no grocery stores?

Erika Nicole Kendall July 31, 2012 - 10:14 AM

IMO, it could only be a coincidence if you believe that businesses aren’t motivated by how much money they believe is available to make in an environment. There’s a fundamental understanding of economics that needs to be shared in order to make that kind of determination. I know I trot this out as my “whipping boy” example, but it’s not a coincidence that a store like Whole Foods, who commands some of the highest prices in the country for pretty basic stuff, is as strategic as it is with its store placement.

To your chicken/egg question, I’d have to challenge the understanding of “grocery store alternatives.” What is an “alternative,” IYO? If businesses – and by businesses, I mean the larger stores… the supermarkets, if you will – believed there was money to be made, they would’ve already been in there pushing the grocery store alternatives out. It really isn’t about what the public wants, unless you’re talking about the one-off community that either fights for or against a superstore being built in their area. And even then, it takes Herculean effort.

The food stamp map and the car-less households maps should look similar because it’d stand to reason that if you live in an environment where there’s high food stamp usage, an assumption (!) would have to be made about the community’s ability to secure a car. These places (specifically the southern belt of that map) tend to have high functioning public transportation and allow for even those with cars to bypass using them to forego the gas fillups. It’d stand to reason that, eventually, you’d create a culture that values cars less and less. Those factors combined affects one’s ability to get to a grocery store… which then culminates in a “well, I don’t really need that stuff anyway. I can just shop at the joint around the corner.” Unfortunately, “the joint around the corner” doesn’t carry any fresh produce beyond what’s necessary for them to qualify for being able to take payments in WIC. And, of course, if you can’t get access to produce – fresh or otherwise – then it’s easy to see how that affects the obesity rate in an environment.

See what I’m getting at, there?

Cassandra August 5, 2012 - 9:17 AM


Girl you are truly an inspiration! I just may take you up on this one. My two year old has one of those fancy strollers that I hardly use because we drive everywhere. I bet she will enjoy being out and strolling with me. And you’re right, you shop smarter because of the hike home. Who would buy ice cream knowing it will melt away by the time you return. Lol! I love these articles, keep em’ coming.

Donna August 5, 2012 - 11:16 AM

Thanl you so much for the article. I lived I’m the DC area years ago and suffered due to poor quality good. I would buy milk in 24 hours it would be cruddled and I could only buy canned fruit because fresh fruit was rotting on the shelve. So I understand location is critical I did not have transportation at the time either. I have had the opportunity to visit Texad twice this year and again I see the challenges people face and how being over wright can be easy. Walmart being the store of choice but the fresh food section not having a variety and the cost was a lot higher than I pay on California .

Bukky August 9, 2012 - 2:04 PM

The maps you produced are so striking! I HATE how we demonize poor folks for their not so great choices in food items, yet fail to realize the almost non existent access to quality fresh food and super markets they have available to them. And transportation options. I’m in the Midwest now but grew up in the DMV and quickly learned all public transportation is not created equally. Buses don’t run as frequently, nor do they run to particular areas all the time. food deserts are real! And until we start to truly address that situation it’s going to be hard to address the obesity problem.

Nayeli Njuzu October 14, 2013 - 1:07 PM

First time reader and commenter, well done Soror, well done.

Danielle October 14, 2013 - 3:23 PM

I almost giggled at your jogging to the store grocery, because I know that strategy too, too well.

Born and raised in NYC, having a car or license isn’t a big deal here. You can get around pretty well on the subway. My mom drives, my siblings drive, now my boyfriend drives and I’m trying for my license “again.”

When I went to college in Upstate New York, if I wanted to cook off campus, I had to go to Wegmans (if you find one, GO, it’s AMAZING! Like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Fairway in one, but reasonable prices. I love it so!) Wegmans is 1/2 mile away, but it’s a schlep, and right on a major (scary) highway.

I would go with my backpack, wheelie luggage, a CD player, and schlep to Wegmans. The clerks found it amusing how I packed my bags to head back to campus. But I made it work. I wish I used the opportunity to make better choices, but I think it was still better than campus food, gross.

Back in NYC I have taken an old lady shopping cart on the subway to BJs, and back, and in Queens we do a lot with the carts. I even did most of my moving with them.

It’s not always easy, but you can usually find a way if you are stubborn enough 🙂

Erika Nicole Kendall October 15, 2013 - 11:00 AM

Lifelong New Yorkers. Y’all are so cute with your subways and your empty slot in your wallets where your license should be! LOL!

Eddy’s the exact same. “What the hell do I need a license for?”


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