A coconut taught me about food access


photo from Think Stock via Tri County Health Dept

While my family lived in Costa Rica last spring, we were faced with an unusual question.  How do you access the water and fruit inside a coconut without any tools?   I had purchased two coconuts from a produce stand and after returning home, realized I had no idea how to open them.  After a few attempts, we turned to the internet.  Youtube videos describe the simple process using a hammer and screwdriver- they said “common items found in every household.”  Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to these tools.  So, we searched for, “how do monkeys open a coconut?” There was our answer- pound the coconut on a hard surface.

This experience was one of many that forced me to think about two intertwined issues- the food environment and food access.  Food access involves travel time and transportation to grocery stores, the types of food stores in the community, availability of healthy food, and food costs. People from lower-income households often have greater barriers to accessing healthy foods. A main reason is the food environment in which they live. A person’s food environment influences the foods they buy and the foods they eat. The food environment involves:

  • The foods served to family members at home
  • Culture, social networks and norms
  • Proximity and types of restaurants and stores selling foods (e.g. convenience stores and fast food restaurants vs. produce stands and grocery stores)
  • Schools and worksites
  • Food messaging and marketing that often promotes unhealthy foods
  • Time available for preparing healthy meals (This is a challenge for most people, and may be even more difficult for single-parent families)
  • Government food policies
  • Food prices of healthy foods like produce vs. snacks, sugary foods and beverages

Many of us are quick to offer suggestions to help people improve their diets. And, we have the best intentions when we recommend cooking at home and storing left-overs in the freezer, buying organic produce, and making fruit and veggie smoothies. However, a person’s food environment may present barriers to these suggestions.

Food Access Challenges

Edstrom_marketDuring my five months in Costa Rica, I began to better understand the impact of one’s food environment. My family lived in a “fully” furnished apartment, and did not have a car. The nearest grocery store and produce market were 1.5 miles from our apartment (3 miles round trip).

Grocery shopping became a weekly family outing as we took the mile and a half walk to the store with four back-packs and four sturdy cloth bags. Our 7-year old complained about the walk sometimes, but my super husband put him up on his shoulders while carrying a backpack full of groceries and two full bags in each hand. Keep in mind, this all took place in 90 degree weather, and by the time we returned home our backpacks were drenched in sweat. The entire process of a grocery store trip took about two hours. It would have been much easier to shop at the convenience store located only a half mile away. This gave me a good perspective into different challenges people face to incorporate healthy eating into their lives, especially when they don’t have access to easy transportation.

Edstrom_breakfastThe high cost and availability of certain foods also impacted what we ate. Meat, hard cheeses and processed foods such as cereal and granola bars were expensive. Eggs, rice and beans, on the other hand, were low cost and readily available. As a result, we adopted the typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto which means “painted rooster.” It is a combination of white rice and black beans, often served for breakfast with eggs, fried plantains and papaya.

Even in Costa Rica, my family faced familiar temptations within the food environment. For example, there was a McDonalds and convenience store closer to our apartment than a grocery store. My children’s teachers rewarded them with candy and snacks. And, fast food, candy, chips, soda and baked goods were on display at corner stores and shops throughout the populated Central Valley. The reality is that Costa Ricans deal with many of the same health problems as Americans. Almost a quarter of the population is obese compared to 33% of Americans, and about 9% of Costa Ricans have type 2 diabetes compared to just over 12% of Americans.

Kitchen Dilemmas

My experience in Costa Rica taught me to be more mindful about making assumptions about others. Before my family left for Costa Rica, we enjoyed a regular-sized refrigerator plus a chest freezer in our basement. Our kitchen was fully stocked with cooking utensils, pots and pans and appliances. When we found our furnished apartment in Costa Rica, I made some assumptions about what “fully furnished” means. For example, I expected fully functioning appliances. However, we had an under-sized refrigerator that would get cold…some of the time, and the freezer basically operated as a snow making machine. Our stove was not much better. Only three of the undersized burners worked, and the oven thermostat was broken.

Edstrom_stoveAfter some failed cooking attempts, we purchased a thermometer to check the actual temperature of the oven.  The lowest setting was 50 degrees Celcius (about 122 degrees Fahrenheit).  Armed with paper and pen, we set a timer for two minute intervals and checked the temperature at the end of each interval (without opening the oven).  Here were the results:

Yes, the oven kept climbing to nearly 500 degrees when set at 122 F! In our attempt to cook healthy meals for our family, we were determined to make this work. Again, my super husband came to the rescue. While cooking meals, he’d camp out in front of the oven turning the dial on and off periodically to keep the temperature constant in order to bake our food.

Take Away Message

My point in sharing all of this is that we all take things for granted and make assumptions about other people’s lives and the resources they have. Time was one resource my family had plenty of while living in Costa Rica. But, take that away and our challenges would have been much more difficult. What is reasonable for one family may not be realistic for another. I now understand why some families regularly buy food at the convenience store down the street. And, it no longer seems ridiculous for a person with limited finances to buy the expensive pre-cut pineapple vs the whole fruit; they may not own a quality knife to cut it at home, or know how to cut it. Recommending solutions that require resources such as time, storage space, blenders and other appliances, and even cooking skills may not be appropriate for everyone.

My experience in Costa Rica reminded me the importance of really listening to others to understand the complexities of their food environment and barriers to accessing healthy foods.

As far as the coconuts, we were able to crack them open on the concrete outside our apartment, but we lost most of the coconut water in the process. From then on, we only purchased coconuts with straws already inserted.


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