Kale, Kale Everywhere, but Only Cheetos to Eat

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A food desert, according to the USDA, is an area that lacks grocery stores, farmer's markets, and other sources of healthy food. People living in food deserts often struggle to buy fresh produce, the thinking goes, so they rely on junk- and fast food, which contributes to their health problems. 

But what happens when you live in the opposite of a food desert? A place that is literally surrounded by the freshest food possible—a farm?

According to a wonderful recent piece in Modern Farmer, today's busy farmers are like the ancient mariner: Kale, kale everywhere, but only Cheetos to eat.

Farmers' days often stretch to 12 and 16 hours as they rush from field to CSA pickup to farmer's market. As with Americans in other professions, the time crunch means cooking is often the first thing to go. A variety of growers told Modern Farmer that they snack on candy all day and their families live on pizza during harvest season. 

“At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food," one Massachusetts farmer told the magazine.

Then there are the logistical challenges:

Nick Hagen, 28, a fifth-generation farmer at Hagen Farm in North Dakota, said says eating in the fields also poses logistical challenges. “Throughout our wheat or sugar beet harvests, there is no time to stop for lunch. I typically have one hand on the tractor’s steering wheel all day, and fish around in my lunch box with the other.” Hagen ends up eating a lot of one-palm foods like peeled hardboiled eggs and plain beans packaged in a container he can “hold and almost drink.” Apples are in; oranges, which need to be peeled, are out. “I can occasionally manage a banana,” he said.

This could explain why, as the magazine reports, 80 percent of farmers in California’s Central Valley are overweight or obese.

Though physical access to fresh food is certainly a factor in health and weight, stories like this are a good reminder that there's more to our obesity crisis than the objective availability of produce. Americans spend the least amount of time cooking and eating than any other country in the OECD, for example. We also tend to work more than our thinner brethren in Europe. You can put a Whole Foods on every block, but many of us still won't have the time to soak dried beans and whip up a healthy soup.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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