One of 10 Arizonans have limited access to healthy foods. Some people do not have a grocery store nearby, and others lack transportation to get healthy food. Eating healthy is vital to your health, and may be simpler than you think. A recent study shows roughly 65 percent of Arizona residents are overweight and are likely to develop life-long health issues that may be avoidable. Of the many challenges parents and children face, a large one is having a reliable and healthy food source nearby.
“It’s not just rural areas of Arizona that have limited access to healthy food choices. It’s inner-city and urban areas as well – typically with elderly or low-income families,” said Melanie Albert, a certified health coach and cooking expert who partners with Gregory’s Fresh Market, and travels the state bringing fresh foods and education to many people living in food deserts. Gregory’s Fresh Market is a one-aisle, mobile produce market that travels to senior communities on a regular basis to deliver fresh, whole foods.
“Food deserts are areas where buying good quality, affordable, fresh food from farmers markets or grocery stores isn’t easy. Either there are limited options or no transportation options available, so people must do their food shopping at convenience stores. This leads to food insecurity, in which people can’t rely on accessing healthy produce on a consistent basis.”
According to the USDA, Maricopa Country, Arizona's largest county, contains 55 food deserts and over one million (15.8 percent) Arizonans are considered ‘food insecure’ according to Feed America.
Albert, an intuitive cooking expert, author, and speaker, is Founder and CEO of Experience Nutrition Group, LLC, in Phoenix, Arizona and author of “A New View of Healthy Eating: Simple Intuitive Cooking with Real Whole Foods.” She’s been traveling with Gregory’s for six years now, and has seen the number of people facing food insecurity grow.
“Poor diet can lead to a number of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis – just to name a few. So much of our current diet is made of foods that cause inflammation, which we are discovering, is really the underlying reason for many avoidable health concerns. Add in stress, smoke, pollution, and the risks increase,” Albert said.
Arizona’s geographical diversity and rapid population growth add to the complexity of this problem. Currently, more than 28.2 percent of Arizona children are living with food insecurity. This leads to common health difficulties, emotional development and learning challenges.
“Lack of proper nutrition and the rise of chronic conditions leads to more medical care, which taxes our entire healthcare system. Arizona’s healthcare spend is more than $43 billion and growing, this just isn’t sustainable in over the long-run,” said Jennifer Kaufman, Vice President of Marketing at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.
“The lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables and the know-how to make good nutritional decisions can lead to problems such as diabetes or obesity.”
That is one reason why Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona is working with organizations across the state to help Arizonans meet their basic nutritional needs and equip them to make better decisions about what they eat or prepare for their families.
“Our desire to help Arizonans inspired us to develop Nourishing Arizona. We believe it is our responsibility to educate Arizonans how everyday decisions can influence how you feel today and in years to come,” said Kaufman.
Healthy food can be expensive no matter where you live - but it is especially challenging for those with a limited income. There are many Arizonans living at or below the Federal Poverty Level, which is $40,800 for a family of four. A staggering 1 in 3 Arizonans, or 2.02 million individuals, are considered working poor.
BCBSAZ made the commitment, along with the Association of Arizona Food Banks, Girl Scouts–Arizona Cactus-Pine Council, Fresh Express, United Way, Gregory’s Fresh Market and more to help these individuals. You can make a difference, too by learning more about the problems our state faces and the resources available.
Albert suggests several solutions for taking small steps toward healthy eating and helping others do the same:
- Shop local. Get to know local farmers and eat with the season. When foods are in season, they are generally cheaper to buy and more nutritious.
- Plant a garden, go to a community garden or visit a seed library where many seeds are free. Many veggies can be grown in small or vertical spaces.
- Learn how to cook. Watch online tutorials or look for free classes. So many people think they can’t cook, but by empowering yourself with some basic skills, you’d be amazed how easy it is to eat fresh foods.
- Be intentional when you shop and cook. She says to feel your food - look at colors, textures, what are you craving and what you are attracted to. “Our bodies are naturally attracted to foods it needs depending on the season. In the summer, Arizonans crave water and will instinctively look at hydrating foods like melons and fruits.”
- Bring fun, intuitive cooking back to your life. Really enjoy your food. Eat with your family or friends. Put flowers on the table and make it an enjoyable experience.
- Gather a group of people who live in a food desert and take a bus to a market then buy in bulk. Healthy whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds can be stored for months at a time.
- Cook in bulk. Make healthy soups and meals that can be frozen and eaten later when you’re rushed and tempted to grab something from the convenience store or fast food.
- Check out the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen when evaluating what to buy organic, and what you may not have to.
BCBSAZ and partners also offer several ways to get educated about food choices and get involved. Visit NourishingArizona.com for more information.