Driving across the mighty Mississippi into Arkansas, our group of nine interns was faced with the flattest land I had ever seen-nothing but crops and trees and a two-lane highway on which we seemed to be the only travelers. The farmland persisted as we approached Marvell, population 1,395, our home for the summer. The scene of crops, interrupted only occasionally by a driveway or a gas station, became the backdrop of life on the familiar drive to and from work in Helena-West Helena.
Ironically, amidst this sea of vegetation, vegetables were hard to come by in our little adoptive hometown. You could find fried pickles at the Carousel or some highly questionable produce in the back corner at the J&J's, but chances of luck at the Dollar General or the gas station were low. We had been forewarned by Professor Beckley that we would not find even a sprig of broccoli in the Delta unless it had been fried, and his warning proved true in Marvell.
While living on $11 per day, we got to try the cuisine of the region. We sampled barbecue from Memphis, Tenn., to Clarksdale, Miss. We ate fried catfish and frogs' legs pickles and grits, okra and chicken, and green tomatoes and Oreos (yes, all fried), along with leftovers brought home from big meals at work, and, if we were lucky, Pat's delicious homemade pizza. We got to try the comfort food of the South while also having the resources and mobility to eat more healthily if we chose.
As elsewhere in the U.S., unhealthy eating is rampant in the Delta and it has notable impacts. All of us picked up on the prevalence of obesity just by living in the region, but I got to learn a bit more about it and its complications with diabetes through my internship at the Delta Area Health Education Center (AHEC). My co-intern, Jason, and I discussed it with our supervisor, who frequently does health screenings at the local schools. She shared with us that many young people, aside from being overweight, are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This form of diabetes, often called adult-onset diabetes, is common among adults in the Delta and is usually associated with age; however, the effects of poor diet and lack of exercise are now making it an issue for school children, as well.
To combat the growing problem of obesity and diabetes among all ages, the AHEC does a fair amount of nutrition education. This became part of our internship, weaved into programs with older ladies, with elementary school students and with adults at counseling services. The main goal of all our programs was not specifically to teach about nutrition, but it is fairly simple to do so and the AHEC's library has a room full of nutrition-oriented props. In the midst of this teaching, though, I started thinking-what is actually going to help people eat more balanced diets? Maybe it's learning how to read nutrition labels or knowing that a portion of pasta, as defined for the food pyramid, is really only the size of a computer mouse (with a cookie the size of a yo-yo!). While these lessons can be useful, discussions about healthy diets always made me feel a little silly. Even if people took what we said to heart, there are other barriers to replacing fried chicken and microwavable meals with grilled salmon and zucchini.
Knowledge is not the only obstacle to healthy eating in the Delta; access to healthy food is limited in the small towns. For people who can drive to Helena-West Helena, the commercial center of the region, they'll find a Wal-Mart Supercenter and other grocery stores with plenty of produce; however, for some, such as the older ladies we worked with, a 20-minute drive is a big outing. Even if physical access is not an issue, economic access can be, in terms of both time and money. Most will say that buying fresh, healthy food is expensive, though some claim it is actually cheaper than subsisting on junk food. Either way, food preparation time plays into the picture, challenging low-income families' ability to eat well. Additionally, the U.S. food culture does not promote the consumption of healthy foods. Aside from small town size, there's a market reason why there is no broccoli in Marvell--a lack of demand. Some efforts, such as one by the FDA's Department of Personalized Medicine and Nutrition, is trying to introduce kids in Marvell and Elaine to good foods through summer programs (which featured two Shepherd interns last year). Really, though, what kind of child is going to eat squash for an afternoon snack when he can come prepared in the morning with pockets loaded with gizzards and jungle juice from the gas station?
From outings to the Marvell Memorial Day Picnic or the Flying Fish in Little Rock to staying in on family dinner Fridays and sitting on old restaurant booth benches around the table in our apartment, food was a gathering point for the "Marvell Nine." For everyone, food is an important part of culture, of creating connections and exploring new places. For its social and cultural importance, the blues, booze and barbecue of the Delta will persist, but to improve the health of its residents, someone needs to figure out how to create and fund a market for broccoli.