Unpacking Central Falls’ Lunch Box: A Lack of Access and Education


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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.__ The smell of French toast and sausage fills Central Falls High School’s cafeteria- yesterday it was macaroni and cheese. Jackie Goncalves, a Cape Verdian native, pulls out her water bottle and fruit salad, the same lunch she packs for herself everyday.

“Well in Cape Verde, we have our own farm and everything is natural,” Goncalves, a junior at Central Falls High School said. “Here, I try to eat healthy, but I don’t eat organic because it’s too far and I don’t drive and I don’t even know where it is. But I try to get vegetables where I can.”

Central Falls- mainly served by bodegas, corner stores, bakeries and fast-food chains- falls into the national criteria for a ‘food desert,’ an area without ready access to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole foods. This is usually seen in urban areas where the concentration of poverty remains highest, the Center for American Progress reports.

“It’s like every time you get a dollar, you go to the corner store to get something to eat, chips or something instead of going to the grocery store and preparing something. No instead they go to the corner store and get something that fills them up for the moment,” Goncalves said. “They should have more stores, more vegetables and then maybe people stop having heart attack early.”

Goncalves left her family and friends in Cape Verde to immigrate to Rhode Island three years ago with just her father. After bouncing from job to job in Cape Verde’s unstable economy, Goncalves’ father came to Rhode Island where he works the second shift in a needle factory. As well as occasionally working a night job for extra cash.

“My life outside of school is so different,” Goncalves said. “In school, I’m collected and an A student, but at home, I’m like a house-wife since I do everything, cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking care of the food.”

Goncalves, who didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the States, was met with a plethora of challenges- bullying from her classmates, difficulties communicating, struggling in her classes and missing her home plagued her first and toughest six months in America.

Since living in the United States, Goncalves and her family have tried their hardest to retain the healthy lifestyle they had in Cape Verde, but Central Falls lack of healthy grocery store options has proved to be a challenge.

“I was skinny when I was in Cape Verde, but after I started eating this food, I gained weight and I’m constantly bloated. I think this food has too much stuff in it. It’s just not healthy. Even some of the vegetables that people think they’re getting are processed and not healthy. This kind of food just makes you bigger and bigger every day,” Goncalves said. “Here, it’s like every day someone dies from something, or someone’s sick.”

“Here, it’s like every day someone dies from something, or someone’s sick.”

The lack of healthy, nutritious meals can lead to higher rates of chronic disease, including diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, asthma and even cancer. It also affects children’s brain development and overall growth.

Studies have found that wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in low-income, minority communities are usually smaller and boast less selection.

Children of color who live in poor areas are more likely to attend schools filled with asbestos, live in homes with peeling lead paint, and play in parks that are contaminated. Environmental injustice has a coordinated relationship with access to nutritious foods. The poorer and more polluted the neighborhood, the harder it is to find healthy food.

“There aren’t a lot of big big grocery stores nearby, there’s a lot of little tiendas and little like gas station type stores. There’s a lot of fast food, even in such a small area, there’s still a Wendy’s and a Dunkin Donuts and Subway and all these different fast food places,” Shannon Doran, Physician Assistant at Blackstone Valley Community Healthcare. “Maybe not so many places with fresh produce and a lot of fresh groceries in general.”

Doran works at Central Falls High School one day a week at their very own health clinic. The clinic, established two years ago, is an extension of the Blackstone Valley Community Healthcare center. Whether the student is insured or not, they perform yearly physicals, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) tests, as well as prescribe birth control for students. Currently, there are roughly 300 Central Falls Students enrolled, according to Central Falls Principal, Troy Silvia.

“The idea behind this is that we can be proactive in terms identifying any sort of deficiencies or ares of wellness that need to be addressed amongst the student body,” Silvia said.

During her time at the Central Falls Health Clinic, Doran has seen a community of students with a high propensity for pediatric obesity and a myriad of other chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

“If you grow up eating chicken nuggets and it tastes good, that’s probably what you’re going to pick first.”

“Probably the most obvious thing is that we see a lot of pediatric obesity and that’s directly related to the food desert- if you’re not having access to healthy fruits and vegetables, you’re probably eating things that are a lot cheaper,” Doran said. “Essentially, you can get more bang for your buck, off of burgers and fries and that sort of stuff. But, you’re not getting the nutrients you would be getting off of fresh foods.”

The link between poverty and chronic health problems is a strong one, Central Falls is home to one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Rhode Island, with roughly 41 percent of children under the age of 18 living in poverty.

A 2011 study by Trust for America’s Heath showcased the fact that more than one-third of adults who earn less than $15,000 a year were obese, while only 25 percent who earn more than $50,000 a year were significantly overweight. Similar findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey made it apparent  that low-income children were much more likely to be overweight than kids of higher socioeconomic statuses.

Central Falls High School students in their cafeteria.

The National School Lunch Program, chronically underfunded, has a hard time boosting kid’s health. Nearly 20 million low-income kids receive free or reduced-cost lunches every day through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program.

Due to the fact that over 70 percent of Central Falls students are eligible for free or reduced breakfast and lunches, the district decided to enact a universal free program- one of the only ones in the state of Rhode Island.

Though the state of school lunches has improved vastly over the years- largely due to the Child Nutrition Act and the introduction of healthy meals by First Lady, Michelle Obama’s Heathy, HungerFree Kids Act— the majority of school lunch rooms splattered across America still have no limit on how many times a year French fries can be served, while chicken fingers and pizza are still considered key components of a balanced meal.

“I know when I ask the kids what they had for lunch, they tell me, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, pizza, chips, fries, so they’re still serving those kinds of things,’ Doran said. ‘They’re getting it at the school.’

According to Danielle Landry, the Aramark Assistant Food Service Director at Central Falls High School, every single day, they provide students with pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken patties, chicken tenders, sandwiches, salad and a hot option which changes day to day. Landry notes that Aramark exclusively uses whole wheat breads and bakes their foods instead of frying them.

“Realistically, we give options. It’s just what they like, what kids tend to grab. Oh I want the burger, the chicken patty, the pizza. We do try to encourage them to try the new sandwich and the other options,” Landry said. “We definitely try to encourage the kids to take the healthier meals but it’s kind of a rock and a hard place, you produce it and they don’t take it, so it goes in the garbage. You can educate a child, but they have to make their own decisions. especially at the high school level.”

Central Falls High School has a health class for students to take, as well as a small garden which is used as an attachment of some of the science classes. But they do not offer an exclusive class on nutrition.

“When you’re used to eating something, you don’t think it’s doing anything to you until you become obese and have a heart attack early because of all the cheeseburger you ate in middle school and high school,” Goncalves said. “We have the choice to eat vegetable or a carrot but no one chooses that because they’re not used to it. It’s like you have to get into the habit as little kids and then when you become older you know you’re supposed to eat it. But I guess we don’t get to learn it. We have health class, but I don’t think it talks about that.”

The lack of education surrounding healthy eating, compounded with targeted marketing by fast food corporations leaves low-income families with little knowledge of how or even why they should eat healthy.

The fast-food industry spends roughly$4.2 billion a year on advertising. This is more dollars spent on advertising in four days than the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s leading organization fighting childhood obesity, spends on health education in an entire year.

In 2013, the city of Central Falls was served by roughly 37 fast food chains per square mile, making it the highest in the state of Rhode Island, according to data accumulated by RI Data Hub.

Source: RI Data Hub

“Central Falls having this fast food places and those corner stores, does it hurt them? Probably. does it hurt everybody? No. But I’m a firm believer in education that starts in the home. Kids usually go for what they know. We push those options, but we can’t force a child either,” Landry said.

With the high rates of poverty in Central Falls, many low-income families are home to parents working two or three jobs, some of which are on the third shift just to make ends meet. Due to the lack of time and money, many may opt for a drive-through where they can feed a family of four on 20 dollars- stocking up on Big Macs and fries- instead of going to the grocery store, which may be more expensive, carrying those groceries home, quite possibly on a bus and then taking the time to prepare a home cooked meal.

If you grow up eating chicken nuggets and it tastes good, that’s probably what you’re going to pick first,” Doran said. “It’s really hard to change your habits when you’re older. I think it just ends up perpetuating itself, they end up being adults who do the same thing and raise their kids the same way. So the cycle continues.”

Goncalves, who works a part-time job at the Burger King in Central Falls, has taken notice of the families that traipse in and out, ordering their usual favorites- milkshakes and cheeseburgers, fries and chicken nuggets. She misses her farm in Cape Verde, the same one she tended to with her mother for years. Her family here has been plagued by chronic disease, her uncle, only 30, has been suffering with diabetes, and Goncalves is painfully aware of the fact that she is at high-risk due to her family history.

“I want to go to a Whole Foods, but I don’t even know where that is. There isn’t one here. Central Falls is small, and we’re not rich if you haven’t noticed that. We’re really poor here and it’s like, why would you care to put a nice place in a small city that’s just a bunch of people trying to get out of this place?,” Goncalves said. “It should be fair, I think we should have more things here too, because I mean, we’re still people. Just because some speak only Spanish or some speak another language doesn’t mean anything, we still paying taxes and we don’t have any good stuff, because we don’t have the money to do that and it’s whatever you is whatever you have to work with.

Author: sabrinacaserta

Sabrina Caserta, born and bred in Bronx, New York, is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Daily News and Street Sense- a homeless-run street paper located in the District. As a member of Roger Williams University’s class of 2016, Sabrina studied Journalism and Political Science. This fueled her passion for social justice reporting, including issues of homelessness, institutionalized racism, poverty, education and the environment. She also served as the Project Director of the nation-brand initiative, The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, and as a Resident Assistant for three years. As an avid reader, health enthusiast and travel addict, Sabrina enjoys yoga, cooking and writing in her spare time. She aspires to one day be an investigative journalist and travel the world. Twitter: @sabrinacaserta Email: sabcaserta AT gmail DOT com

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