Is Living Healthier in the Country Just a Sub-Urban Legend?

When did it become healthier to live in a city, as opposed to living in a more rural area of the US? Are you reading that and thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe so, but, follow me here for a bit.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s on the outskirts of New York City and Pittsburgh. Back then, before the advent of the SUV, and urban sprawl, the city was known to have dirtier air. From a distance, cities had plumes of air pollution that hovered over them, and you knew, if you drove there, you were breathing that air; as if it was all – over there.

The city was a place of compromises in terms of space and air, as a trade-off for the possibility of a better job, but it was not a healthier place to live, by any measure. Now, I live in New York, and I have lived here for the better part of the last 29 years. My family has always lived outside of the city, and visiting them, has been a reliable respite of peace and quiet, and good food over the years. I never analyzed the food, and wondered about its quality or its source the way I do today as a chef. I just enjoyed it. But now, I am noticing a difference between our choices in New York, and those of my family in the country.

Last Thanksgiving, I visited my Mom and brother’s family in eastern Ohio. It was great to be in the country again, with the more wide open spaces, and a view of the stars unobstructed by city lights, but this time, I grew restless after a few days of driving everywhere, shopping at the hermetically sealed, mega grocery store (with only five feet of dedicated space for organic produce), and then stopping at the hermetically sealed mall to pick up a few things. I was eager to get back to New York City, where I could walk a lot, and have access to some of the healthiest food and produce in the country. That surprised me. Had my awareness changed, or had the environment changed, or both? I wondered if I was the only person who felt this way – then, my friend Matthew (a chef from NYC who just moved to Bhutan) mentioned it in his blog, and like some form of subtle confirmation, I realized others were noticing the same thing.

To break it down, I need to go back a few years to the first time I  encountered Whole Foods. Why Whole Foods? Well, I think they  led-the-charge, so to speak, of bringing healthy food to the city in  greater volume. I am not an advocate nor an adversary of Whole Foods. I  see its benefits and its detriments, but for the purposes of this story,  let’s talk about the amazing phenomenon that Whole Foods was, and how  it caused a city like New York, to have access to better produce and  other foods, on a grander scale.

Twelve years ago, after a  business trip to Dallas, I ventured to Austin, to visit my good friend,  Terry, and her family. It was the early Spring of 1999, and still cold  in New York, so it was nice to see the sun, and feel the warm air of  Texas. Terry, picked me up at the airport, and asked if I’d mind if we  stopped at the ‘grocery store’ before heading home. No problem,  I thought. We rolled into the Whole Foods parking lot (their flagship  store), and I remember thinking, ‘wow, what a pretty grocery store.’  Little did I know where we were, and what I was about to encounter.  When the doors opened, Terry made a bee-line for the things she needed,  while I stood frozen at the entrance, hearing angels sing overhead. Time  stood still as I gazed around, at the interior of the store. I hadn’t  moved an inch, but I knew I had found something close to Mecca, and I  strategized about where to head first. Terry soon realized I was not  behind her. When she turned to find me, I came out of my daze, and said,  “Ter, THIS is your grocery store? You have to  be kidding me. It’s unbelievable” She laughed and said, “You’ve never  been to Whole Foods?” Naturally, the answer was, no. We continued to  shop, but in truth, I took many detours, and got lost a few times. I  visited the vitamin section, the organic wine and beer section, the  salad bar area, the produce department, and the juice bar. Terry waited  patiently for me by the front door, and when I was through staring and  browsing, we headed home. I had never seen a store like that before, but  I certainly had imagined one.

Back in New York, I had been  yearning for a store like this for years. Like many, I had grown tired  of the cluttered local, ‘health food’ stores that smelled like vitamins,  and were not able to keep pace with the growing demand of the urban,  sophisticated needs and interests of its clientele. To their credit,  they had limited space, and possibly limited aspirations to be more than  what they were. So, twelve years ago, New Yorkers were ready for a  store like Whole Foods, and a few years later, we got one.

It opened on the corner of 24th Street and Seventh Avenue in the bottom of the Chelsea Mercantile, a new and very sought after Condo conversion. Ironically, the first time I stepped foot in that store, was with Terry, from Austin. She was in town for a brief visit, and staying across the street at a residential hotel. We peered over at the new store and decided to venture in. It was a city within a city. The best was, the check-out area. As is now standard with all Whole Foods in New York City, we were shuttled through lanes that corresponded with an overhead, color-coded monitor, that prompted you to the next available register, by an invisible, automated voice. It moved like a digital clock on steroids, and it had to – this was New York. New Yorkers can be some of the most demanding, impatient, and temperamental of people on the planet, and so, things need to move quickly, efficiently, and effectively. If they don’t, we are not happy, and we let you know (sorry non-New Yorkers). Whole Foods had opened their first New York store, in true New York fashion: they gave us the best of everything and they gave it to us fast.

Fast forward to today – New York is replete with Whole Foods stores (6+), and Trader Joes, but another phenomenon has taken place in the last twelve years – farmer’s markets have increased and grown stronger, as they have elsewhere, but these markets do truly sell, local products, and not factory farmed produce made to seem like it’s local, because it’s being sold outdoors, under a tent. The markets offer everything local and fresh: vegetables; fruits; flowers; eggs; chicken; fish; turkey; beef; pork; and ostrich, not to mention raw cheese, and all of the lacto fermented foods such as: kefir; kimchi; kombucha; miso; and tempeh.

There’s an unlimited smorgasbord of healthy food options to choose from in this city. In the winter the local produce options are fewer, but our network of Korean grocers, and privately owned natural foods stores, coupled with Whole Foods and Trader Joes enables us to have access to healthy food all year round. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in the more rural and northern areas of the US. Most of the grocery stores are shipping in produce from other parts of the US and the world, that are often treated with toxic, harmful chemicals, and grown in minerally depleted dirt, not to mention whether they are of GMO seeds or not. The organic section at most grocery stores is small and the produce is, by comparison, expensive. The closest ‘health food store’ is either an hour away, or does not exist, and unless you are buying everything online through reliable sources, you are SOL, as they say. Also, buying online or at the local natural foods store is usually more expensive, not a luxury many can afford with static income as the norm.

And then there is the exercise component of living in a city. If you’re inclined to exercise, you will, and if you’re not, you won’t – whether you live in New York or Boardman, Ohio. But if you are living in New York, you are at least getting some passive-active exercise everyday – walking. New Yorkers walk more because they have to. We rely on public transportation, so we have to walk either to/from the subway or the bus, everyday, in order to get where we are going. We may not like it, in the dead of winter, and may wish the subway stations were cleaner, or that the trains were more reliable, but it is our primary mode of transportation, and as such, we have to walk to use it. Our suburban and country friends do not have this option, so they drive everywhere. Even if they were inclined to walk, it can feel weird to be the only person trucking along on the side of the expressway while everyone is driving by. In New York, we see taxis as a luxury, and we get hives if we cannot walk at least a half a mile a day. So, is walking better than going to the gym? No, not necessarily, but it certainly is better than doing nothing. Until you have walked at least a mile a day for a while, you don’t realize the overall, long-term health and weight benefits of walking.

From an image standpoint, New Yorkers are also a little more overtly vain. While walking to/from the subway, we see our competition up-close-and-personally everyday, whether we like it or not. We know he or she brought their game that day, and we learn how to bring our game the next. If we drove around in a hermetically sealed (by now you realize I do not like being in a hermetically sealed environment) car all day, only to encounter our office mates, we would miss all that in-your-face information we get from walking. This actually causes us to be more aware of whether or not we are getting heavier. We’re not only more aware of our bodies because of the information we get from every passerby, but also, from how we feel going up and down the subway stairs, day in and day out. This may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but anyone from NYC reading this will be nodding in agreement.

I know New York is not the end all to be all, but it is a city of choices, and of lately, many healthier choices than the ones afforded our friends in the country. You may not agree, and I realize why. Not everything can be stopped down to just these facets. The quality of ones life depends on many things, that’s true, but for me, I love having the food choices I have in New York, and would not be happy without them. This is not to say that I prefer the congestion we encounter, or the noise, at times; there is no comparison to the tranquility of country life. I just wish the country life also enabled me to eat healthy, and get more exercise, like it used to.

Sharon McGrail, THE ECO CHEF


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