Bringing Justice to the Table | Teachers College Columbia University

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Bringing Justice to the Table

Keynote speaker Ian Smith calls for the elimination of food deserts in America
Keynote speaker Ian Smith calls for the elimination of food deserts in America

The implications of the old adage “You are what you eat” are all too alarming for the significant number of Americans who live in “food deserts” – areas lacking ready access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other elements of a healthy diet.

In his keynote address at TC’s Academic Festival, Ian Smith (MA ’93), the celebrated health and fitness guru who has launched initiatives such as The Million Pound Challenge and The Makeover Mile, which are targeted at poor communities, called it “ironic and embarrassing in a country with an abundance of food” that, for example, half the population of Detroit and more than a fifth of Chicago’s population live in food deserts.

The consequences, he said, are all too apparent: obesity among children has more than tripled since 1980 as poor families have increasingly subsisted on fast food restaurants and convenience store offerings, positioning a generation of Americans for vastly increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer.  (The numbers in certain populations are even scarier: 28 percent of non-Hispanic African American females between the ages of 12 and 19 are considered to be medically obese, Smith said, and the numbers are almost double for those are who are overweight.) And those are just the most obvious consequences. Malnutrition at age three produces increased hyperactivity and aggressive behavior by age eight, Smith said, lower IQ in eleven-year-olds, and increased motor activity and conduct disorders in 17-year-olds.

Ironically, convenience store food prices are higher than those in supermarkets, so poor people are paying more for unhealthier food.

All these disastrous results underscore a point that Smith, who also received TC’s 2011 President’s Medal of Excellence, emphasized especially forcefully: poor people don’t choose to eat badly.

“I’ve never met a poor person who says ‘I want to die early from disease’ or ‘I want to eat the most unhealthy food I can get my hands on,’” he said. “That simply does not exist, even though some pundits like to spin it that way.”

Calling himself a non-academic – “I’m a street worker,  I move and touch people” -- Smith urged TC faculty and students to take the lead in research that emphasizes the positive impact of good nutrition on learning. 

“How can a country as self-described wealthy and powerful as ours neglect our truly greatest asset – the fertile minds of the young, who are so ready to be planted with the seeds of dreams and greatness?” he said. “Let’s take steps to eliminate these gross and harrowing disparities – but not years from now, after Congress has stopped its bipartisan bickering. Because if not now, when?”

Published Wednesday, May. 4, 2011