A Wok on the Wild Side

On a recent trip to the nearest grocery store, I was struck by a couple of things. First, you should know that the nearest grocery store is a bit sketchy. Through a series of owners and internal transitions, it has gotten progressively worse over the years. You can always tell when the old management team has just been fired because new enthusiastic people come in and make the shelves look nice for a month or two. Invariably the enthusiasm gives way to the realities of managing a Pine Bluff workforce. It slides back toward the abyss… until a replacement team gets summoned.

The second thing is the uneven variety of items available. It’s as though the store is stocked for two completely different realities. On the one hand, there are the refrigerator shelves full of big gruesome red-hot wieners and fruity “bug juice” punch. Then there are bags of quinoa and $10 a pound imported cheese. I can’t imagine those four products commingled in many shopping carts.

Today, however, I noticed an item for sale that is the cause of a great dissonance for me: A $35.00 wok. I can’t imagine anybody making this particular impulse buy, nor can I imagine anyone who is planning to purchase a wok honing-in on this one. Yet, there it hung, next to some plastic serving spoons and a few feet from discounted dog toys. I’m sure some marketing genius, driven by very well-conceived algorithms demanded its placement. I’m also sure that it will become a $15.00 wok in about six months. Even then, who casually buys such a thing in a ratty grocery store?

Apart from the items for sale, I was struck by a feature common to almost all of my fellow patrons. With the exception of three or four people, I would hazard that everyone in that store teetered on morbid obesity. Young and old, irrespective of race or gender, these people were large. 

Yet, there it hung, next to some plastic serving spoons and a few feet from discounted dog toys.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not trying to “fat shame” anybody. If that’s the informed choice they’ve made for themselves, so be it. I want everyone to be exactly as their proclivities and conscience direct them to be.

My concern is more social than individual. It’s not just that grocery store. It’s every grocery store here. Whether it’s the dystopian food hell on 6th Avenue (the store where dreams go to die, as I like to call it) or the Walmart with all the bright lights and falderal of mass marketing, the shoppers are conditioned into life choices that are clearly unhealthy. The cheapest or most convenient food is usually the worst for you. These stores – and our local culture – make it very easy to choose poorly. 

Not only do these choices have obvious health implications, they impact worker productivity and educational outcomes. Researchers writing for the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine report, “Overall, the findings underscored the substantial economic burden of obesity among US workers. Generally speaking, increasing BMI class was positively associated with impaired work productivity and indirect costs.” They further note that these “indirect costs” can run in excess of $12,000.00 per year per person. 

The people in my sad little hometown do a lot of things that make Pine Bluff less than it could be. Choosing wisely isn’t always easy and it’s doubly hard when scarce resources and low incomes appear to prescribe poor choices. 

We do a lousy job of educating people about these things. This is reflected in a study titled 2015: County Health Rankings Arkansas, published jointly by the Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This study reveals that Jefferson County, Arkansas ranks 47th out of 75 counties for health outcomes and 64th out of 75 counties for health factors. Arkansas overall is among the least healthy. To be among the worst counties in a troubled state is just shameful. Maybe if the state legislature would just ease the tax burden on a few more millionaires, it will all work out (extreme sarcasm intended).

While it’s not the government’s job to dictate healthy living, our collective tolerance of junk food, tobacco use, illicit drug use – including marijuana, alcohol consumption, sedentary lifestyles and environmental pollution create costs we must all bear. While there are a lot of things done to the people of Pine Bluff by outsiders, this is something we’ve chosen to do to ourselves.  

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