Food, if you stop to think about it, is about more than food, about more than the caloric intake we need to live, about more than satisfying our growling stomachs. Food — or at least, a food scene — is about community, about connecting to friends and family and loved ones and strangers over a shared experience, about developing a sense of place and distinctiveness, about searching for new and interesting things and seeking out the artistry and innovation that separate, say, Orsay from Olive Garden.
That’s why vibrant cities and regions have vibrant food scenes, just like they have vibrant arts scenes and vibrant music scenes. That’s what our Bite By Bite by Neighborhood issue is all about — celebrating ours.
And make no mistake: Our food scene is vibrant, and getting more so every single day. From food trucks (which the City Council doesn’t quite seem to understand) to steakhouses (which they do), Arab sandwich shops to barbecue joints, sushi restaurants to fish camps, gastropubs to bakeries, Northeast Florida has something for everyone — if you’re willing to explore.
But before we indulge in this literary orgy of gluttony, let’s take a moment to remember that our community is full of people — too many people — who not only can’t afford a night out at Matthew’s, but even basic nutrition.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Duval is the least healthy of any major county in Florida, ranked 47th out of 67. Part of this is because too many of us smoke (20 percent, compared to a national benchmark of 13 percent, as of 2013), and are obese (28 percent versus 25 percent) and inactive (26 percent versus 21 percent; we are, after all, the least-walkable large city in the United States). It’s also that Duval has too many uninsured people (19 percent to 11 percent) and impoverished children (26 percent to 14 percent).
But here’s something else to consider: Seven percent of Duval residents (that’s 62,000 people) live in places with limited access to grocery stores — not convenience stores, with their four apples and six bananas by the checkout — and the healthful foods they provide (the national benchmark is 1 percent). As of 2011, the USDA classified nearly two dozen Jacksonville neighborhoods, many in Northwest Jacksonville and on the Eastside, as food deserts. Meanwhile, 53 percent — 53 percent — of restaurants in Duval County are fast-food, the kinds of places where poor people with few healthy options tend to frequent, consequently driving up rates of obesity and diabetes and health care costs.
In 2011, the City Council tried to help one of these deserts create an oasis, allocating $150,000 to help a neighborhood nonprofit develop the Eastside Emporium, a shopping center that would include a major grocery store. But the development deadline passed, the money was never released, and nothing happened. (The nonprofit did begin cleaning up the property’s damaged environment, the result of chemical spills from a long-closed wood-preserving company.)
I mention this not to be a buzzkill or lay on a guilt trip. (I quite enjoyed the copious “research” that went into this issue.) But we do well to remember that, as important as a dynamic food culture is to our city’s well-being, so is ensuring that all of our neighbors — no matter their ZIP code or income level — have at least some access to essentials that most of us take for granted.