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Healthful Eating in a Food Desert

10 tips for thriving despite limited options

Many of us know we should be eating more vegetables, fruits and other healthful foods. But unfortunately, more than 20 million Americans live in “food deserts” – that is, urban or rural communities with limited access to fresh, healthful and affordable food. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as a metropolitan area where at least a third of the population live more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, or, in a rural area, 10 miles. These areas are often served only by fast-food restaurants or by convenience stores with few healthful options. As the USDA states, this “lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

(Search the USDA locator map and see if you live in a food desert.)

For many of the people who live in these areas, healthful eating may seem like an impossible challenge. The following are tips that may help those with limited access make more healthful choices. (Be sure to talk to your diabetes care team if you have concerns about food access and your meal plan.)

1. Buy canned or frozen produce. According to Georgiana Bradshaw, RN, CDE*, coordinator of the diabetes program at the food bank of Corpus Christi, Texas, canned and frozen options may often be as healthful and nutritious as their fresh counterparts, and may be a quick, healthy addition to many meals. Look for plain frozen vegetables (no sauces), fruits that have been packed in water or their natural juices (skip the heavy syrups), and plain, low-sodium canned beans and vegetables. If low-sodium options are not available, remove a lot of the extra salt by rinsing the beans or veggies before you use them.

2. Come up with several go-to recipes based on healthful, available options. Tami A. Ross, RD, LD, CDE, MLDE, former president of the American Association of Diabetes Educators and author of Diabetes Meals on $7 A Day – or Less!, says that when her clients feel overwhelmed, “I suggest that they think of what they keep in the pantry or what they can get at the market nearby, and plan five meals that they can easily throw together.” Try tossing frozen vegetables into an omelet or adding them to pasta sauce. Use frozen fruits to sweeten oatmeal or blend them with plain yogurt for a smoothie. (Search for more easy and inexpensive recipes on the USDA’s “What’s Cooking” site.)

3. Buy on sale, in bulk. When you do have access to a grocery store, fill your freezer with frozen meats and produce, stock your pantry with canned goods, pick up some healthy cooking staples like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and buy a supply of whole-wheat pasta and dried beans. If fresh produce is available, extend its life by cooking a big batch of something – like soup, stew or spaghetti sauce – and freezing it in single-portion containers. (Read more tips for stocking up.)

4. Develop a meal plan. According to Ross, thinking ahead is a key to healthy eating, regardless of where a person lives. She explains that, if her clients don’t have a plan, “they often end up going for fast food, or just eating whatever’s immediately available. Take five minutes and plan five meals you could make with whatever you’ve got in your freezer or pantry. That way, if hunger hits or you’re at work late, you’ll know you have an easy, healthier option at hand.”

5. Snack healthy. Instead of highly processed, salty snacks like potato chips or cheese puffs, look for dried fruits, trail mix or 100-calorie snack packs of unsalted peanuts or walnuts. (For a cheaper option, buy nuts in bulk and portion them out into individual sandwich bags.) Kate Hilliard, registered dietitian at the Food Bank of Corpus Christi, Texas, counsels her clients who live with diabetes to look for snack foods that contain 10 grams or fewer of added sugars per serving. (Read more ideas for satisfying, diabetes-friendlier snacks.)

6. Pay attention to the ingredients on food packaging. They’re listed in descending order by weight, and according to Ross, you can tell a lot about a food just by its first three ingredients: “If they include sugar, oil or white flour, that should give you pause.” (Learn more about reading nutrition labels.)

7. Think outside the box. There might not be a good supermarket in your area, but is there a dollar store? According to the American Association of Diabetes Educators’ journal AADE in Practice, many dollar (and other discount) stores have begun to stock frozen foods. Some also accept food stamps. Farmers markets are also a good option – you can search for one in your area at localharvest.org.

8. Grow your own. It might sound daunting at first, but vegetables like tomatoes can be grown in small spaces and don’t take much work. Or search for a local community garden – some have programs that teach people to garden, or offer free produce in exchange for help.

9. Find a local food bank. Many food banks have begun programs to offer fresh produce and other healthy choices. Visit feedingamerica.org  and enter your ZIP code to find the bank nearest you.

10. Don’t forget coupons! Bodegas and convenience stores are often more expensive than grocery stores, but you can reduce the cost by searching online and in local newspapers and flyers for coupons before shopping.

Coming up with a healthful meal plan in a food desert may be challenging, but it’s doable. “The good news is that most of us tend to eat many of the same foods from week to week,” Ross says. “So, once you figure out what works for you, shopping and cooking can get a lot easier.”

Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science and O Magazine, among others. Her newest book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, is available from Penguin Press. She blogs about diabetes at ASweetLife.org and you can follow her on Twitter @Catherine_Price. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2016 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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