Women, Secret Shoppers, and Putting Healthy Food Within Reach

by Tammy Nguyen and Kristyn Joy.

What has become clear to the Women in the Green Economy Project is that “Access to Healthy Foods,” just like “Green Jobs,” is as much an economic justice issue as an environmental one.

You can’t open a newspaper or turn on the radio these days without hearing about the healthy food crisis in America. Children –especially children from low income families – are too fat, we’re told, and who are we told is to blame?

Poor moms and moms of color who are making poor food choices, if you believe what you hear…

And yet when members of Got Green’s new Women in the Green Economy Project stood outside of grocery stores, public health clinics, and bus stops in SE Seattle this spring to survey 210 low income women, immigrant women and women of color about the green economy and their families’ needs, a different picture presented itself.

It turns out that poor women aren’t ignoring their families’ diets, on the contrary they care about them deeply. At least that’s what two thirds of our survey participants said when they chose “Access to Healthy Foods” as the top benefit of the new green economy that they want for their families.

So if women of color are paying attention to healthy foods and ready to make the shift in their shopping and cooking, what’s getting in the way? It’s pretty simple: THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO CHOOSE HEALTHY FOODS!

Following the survey a dozen women met to get to know each other and talk more about access to healthy foods. There was a strong suspicion in the room that women in wealthier neighborhoods have more healthy and affordable options.

Got Green then conducted a “Secret Shoppers Tour” of four chain grocery stores: two in Southeast Seattle and two in Bellevue. Our comparisons told a new variation on the access story. Once we looked past the lounge area for tired housewives to put up their feet in front of a large screen TV in downtown Bellevue (!) we learned that many of the same products, at the same prices, are available across neighborhoods.

However at one Southeast store the produce quality was so sorely lacking that we wondered if the lettuce, carrots and apples were castoffs from a different store (think large screen TV); and the store staffing level was so poor that the two healthy sale items we surveyed that day – organic milk and peanut butter – were cleaned from the shelves without a worker to restock in sight.

So the deeper that we dig into the new, green economy, the more we learn that “green” will look different in different communities. In downtown Bellevue it could look like bringing more organic products into the local Trader Joe’s vs. in Southeast Seattle it could look like advocating for more staff in the local grocery store to keep the healthy sale items restocked – adding a few “green jobs” in a community with high unemployment in the process.

What has become clear to the Women in the Green Economy Project is that “Access to Healthy Foods,” just like “Green Jobs,” is as much an economic justice issue as an environmental one. We have discussed a number of different directions we can take our new “food access” campaign at Got Green; but one thing is for sure, if we don’t find ways to put more food dollars into the pockets of poor women – then our kids will continue to gain weight, our health will worsen and our medical bills will rise.

Stay tuned as Got Green rolls out our campaign to put healthy foods within reach for low income families in Southeast Seattle. To learn more or join our campaign, email tammy@gotgreen.org.

Tammy Nguyen (right) is the founder and organizer of The Women in the Green Economy Project and Kristyn Joy (left) is the Operations Director at Got Green.

This op-ed was published in the June 15th 2011 issue of the International Examiner. http://www.iexaminer.org/editorial/op-ed-women-green-economy/

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