This article is not about race, socio-economic status, or politics when it comes to food. This is about observations of food access that I made living with my husband and two children for the month of January in the small community of Todos Santos, Mexico.
By Sally Smithwick, Managing Editor of SupermarketGuru.com and co-host of Lost in the Supermarket
As managing editor for SupermarketGuru.com, I have read, listened, and edited stories on the great controversy of how affordable access to healthy foods affects eating choices. While extensive data has been collected to show that improving access to healthy, price-friendly foods in food deserts can positively influence choices, studies have also shown that people will continue to choose cheap, higher in salt and sugar foods. Despite some encouraging results in case studies across the country where local, community efforts are succeeding (Fixing Food: Fresh Solutions from Five U.S. Cities 2016) the national level is stumped when it comes to addressing our population’s health when it comes to food.
This article is not about race, socio-economic status, or politics when it comes to food. This is about observations of food access that I made living with my husband and two children for the month of January in the small community of Todos Santos, Mexico. But before we get started, for the remainder of this article I ask that you suspend all conversations in your head such as how lower income people spend more money on their cell phones and cable and should be spending it on organic food, or that wealthy people spend more money than anyone eating fast food, or that any one race is fatter than another and why. These observations are not to present debate or cast blame, they are simply differences observed in comparison to my home, Nashville, TN and other areas that I have lived in the U.S. including Los Angeles, that can teach us a few things about how we approach food.
1. There are no fast food chains or chain restaurants of any kind. And there are no billboards. Todos Santos is located in the state of Baja California Sur, 55 miles north of Cabo San Lucas where they have fancy hotels, Starbucks, and all the same comforts of home most Americans know. However, just outside the popular resort area of Cabo San Lucas, the roads are rarely paved, there are no billboards, no drive-thrus or food delivery. If you want to stop for a quick bite or a cup of coffee, you best not be in a hurry, because they don’t cook it or brew it until you order it.
2. There are no large supermarkets, therefore very little access to large amounts of processed food. There are no shopping carts, because bodegas/mini marts aren’t large enough for that kind of shopping. Grab a basket and fill it up with essentials like milk, butter, fresh local eggs, homemade tortillas, olive oil, coffee, cereal, condiments, and some household supplies. No frozen foods section, and you won’t have large aisles of processed foods to choose from. Your shopping trips will be quick!
3. There are no vending machines.
4. There is an abundance of cheap, local fruits and vegetables, everywhere. In the photo above you can see a purchase I made for around $7, all organic (although there is no official seal or certification) and local: five tomatoes, two bunches of spinach, a basket of mushrooms, two cucumbers, one bunch of radishes, two apples, one orange, one jalapeño, garlic, ginger, some green onions and a bag of granola.
5. Seafood caught in the morning can be purchased same day from a guy with a cooler on the corner. Of course, being a little town on the Pacific Ocean with many fisherman makes this a no brainer, but lucky for this community, they can take advantage of the health benefits of eating fish and the quality and taste of a fresh catch at an obscenely low cost.
6. I rarely encountered opportunities for sugary foods. Ice cream shops, yes. Dessert carts rolled out by servers in restaurants, no. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single dessert being served at any restaurant.
7. I saw very little obesity, and the children are slim and healthy from eating well and playing outside all day long! It doesn’t hurt that the weather and the beauty of the ocean and environment encourages you to be outdoors. People walk, toddlers are never in strollers, there’s a large community playground with challenging climbs to the slides. You don’t see much “working out” or gyms, but you see a lot of people getting natural exercise and soaking up some Vitamin D.
8. Portion sizes in restaurants make sense! Restaurants serve appropriate amounts of food unless you eat at the Hotel California, the only tourist style hotel, where the food seems a little more designed to suit Americans. Otherwise, I never felt the pressure to overeat. In addition, time is taken with dining, food is shared with friends, mindful eating is easier to achieve at a slower pace and amongst friends.
9. I did not encounter any food promoted for being gluten-free or any person who is on a gluten-free diet. This is not to take away from the fact that there are people with a genuine intolerance to gluten or suffer from Celiac disease. But perhaps, diet trends aren’t really of interest in a community like this where there are less choices and less opportunity for brands to market new products. I also never saw on a menu the words “light” or “low calorie.”
Yes, it’s only fair that I admit how I was happy to come home to the drive-thru Starbuck’s latte I am accustomed to a couple of times a week, but a month in this Mexican community showed me that I don’t necessarily need all these food options continually being pushed on me through over saturation of quick and easy chain restaurants, gigantic supermarkets with aisles that take an hour of my time to get through, and restaurants over serving with their super size portions. Instead I was excited that wherever I went I could always pick up fresh, beautiful produce for such a small amount of money, I wasted less food, I thoughtfully shopped in the bodegas, and things we cooked at home were simple. I did not opt for French fries and a soda in the middle of my day because it was never suggested to me in ads within my environment nor was it really available. And my children ate more fruits and vegetables and learned to love other adventurous foods (like ceviche with octopus!) because there were no kids menus with macaroni and cheese. On top of it all, I lost five pounds without dieting or thinking about calories, gluten, etc. My take away…simplify!