by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD
The USDA defines a food desert as a region without access to nutritious, affordable and quality whole foods. Food deserts are areas with a 20 percent or greater poverty rate and where a third of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket, farmers market or local grocery store. In the “grocery gap,” researchers from Food Trust found African Americans are 400 percent more likely to live in a community that lacks a full-service supermarket.
Ron Finley is a food justice advocate in South Los Angeles. In his community, “It’s easier to get alcohol than an organic apple.
“A food desert is a place where there is absolutely no chance, opportunity or hope to get any kind of healthy, nutritious food. The food that is distributed in a food desert is sub-par and often comes from different parts of the world. It is sprayed with toxins and poisons and picked before its time. On top of that, there is a proliferation of fast food, which a lot of time is the only option residents of these communities have … the drive-throughs are killing more people than the drive-bys.”
Joel Fuhrman, MD, coined the term, “fast food genocide” because most people “don’t understand the depth and breadth of the harm as a large segment of our society eats a diet worse than the sad and dangerous Standard American Diet (SAD).”
Fuhrman cites research showing that compared with neighborhoods with access to full-service supermarkets, the “years of potential life lost,” or YPLL, for an overweight diabetic living in a zone classified as a food desert is a shocking 45 years!
Having grown up in southeast San Francisco, I harbor childhood memories of shopping at the cannery with my mother and spending my lunch money on sugar cookies and hard candy at a liquor store near my school. My mind keeps deeply engraved memories of running out of food stamps before the end of the month and discovering a gallon of spoiled milk in a dark warm refrigerator after PG&E shut off the electricity for non-payment.
I was born a low birth weight infant at 5 pounds and was often the smallest – and smartest – child in my elementary school classroom. My low body weight and boundless energy fueled my training as a gymnast and dancer, with the expense of extremely low body fat.
As a certified clinical nutritionist and physician, I now recognize the relationship between poverty, hunger and obesity linked to fast foods, canned foods and nutritionally deficient calorie rich foods loaded with sugar, salt, corn syrup and artificial colors and flavors. Food deserts are areas where liquor stores, dollar stores and fast food restaurants are major sources of empty calories from sodas, pastries, cookies, chips and wine coolers – nutritionally inadequate foods linked with poverty and excess death from diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and low birth weight infants.
The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program was funded by the Packard Foundation in October 2019 and licensed by the Medical Board of California as a medical screening clinic in January of 2020. HP Biomonitoring detects toxic body burden and deficiencies in essential immune and nutrient elements in screenings conducted on low income residents and workers at a federal Superfund site.
Using the Genova Diagnostics Comprehensive Urine Elements Profile screening to detect toxins and nutritional deficiencies in 35 elements, HP Biomonitoring has identified a “toxic triangle” of deficiencies that include micronutrients essential for optimal function of the immune system and thyroid gland that include zinc, selenium and copper.
Research has proven copper deficiency is linked to increased susceptibility to infection. An improved immune response has been documented when the deficient host is provided with a copper supplement. Copper stimulates the immune system to fight infections, repair injured tissue, promote healing and neutralize free radicals that cause severe damage to cells.
Correcting deficiencies in essential immune and nutrient elements is the fundamental first step in mitigating the “perfect storm” of adverse impacts caused by community-wide toxic exposures, climate change and the global pandemic.
Additionally, HP Biomonitoring is detecting deficiencies in micronutrients essential for the physical integrity and neuromuscular function of the human body including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur.
Manganese is being universally detected in high normal to toxic concentrations in all screenings performed to date on residents and workers within a one-mile radius of the federal superfund system at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Manganese fed to cocks in toxic concentrations led to microscopically detected damage to immune organs. Effects of manganese toxicity on immune-related organs of cocks can be found here.
The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program is dedicated to the intersecting priorities of:
- Advancing environmental public health through community exposure screenings toward the ultimate goal of establishing a community-wide toxic registry.
- Identifying social and environmental determinants of health that adversely impact the optimum function of the human immune system in a neighborhood with the second highest case rate for COVID-19 infections.
- Advancing HP Biomonitoring’s award winning pioneering geospatial mapping and epidemiological surveys to determine prevalence of community-wide toxic exposures to “detect … protect … prevent!”
- Cross-referencing human biomonitoring geospatial mapping with real time particulate air monitoring data generated by the Marie Harrison Bayview Air Monitoring network of PM10 2.5 micron community air monitors sited at strategic locations throughout the 94124 zip code.
- Raising the bar on the delivery of high quality, high standard care along with personalized medicine and offering the nascent science of human biomonitoring in population screenings for the state of California’s most high-risk community.
- Simple, reliable, low cost and accessible urinary screenings to detect deficiencies in essential immune, micronutrient and toxic elements performed by a certified laboratory using mass spectrometry.
SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at AhimsaPorterSumchaiMD@Comcast.net. Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.