Friday, June 04, 2010

Exercising Because You Can: The Privilege of Fitness

About two years ago, I saw a man on my commute home from work on a little scooter thingy, the kind that were so popular about five years ago, that you put one foot on and push with the other foot, holding handles. He wore birkenstock-type sandals and socks and carried a reusable grocery bag. I smiled a little smile to myself and thought something along the lines of "How cute!" because there are not a whole lot people who do errands on scooters or in any other non-car ways in my neighborhood. That little smile has bugged me ever since. I seem him almost every day, and I have begun to totally rethink his mode of transportation. I don't think he chooses to ride his scooter around the neighborhood except as maybe an alternative to walking; I think he is car-less and his scooter is his wheels. (I still think his birkenstocks are kind of cute).

I tell that story because I've been thinking a lot about what it means to run, to jog, to go to the gym, to ride your bike in events like Critical Mass or to work, or to fuss about Muni/AC Transit/BART service when you *can* drive. I'm not saying anyone shouldn't exercise or take public transit, or that they shouldn't fight for public transportation to be better. I'm just thinking of all the people who walk, bus and bike because they have to, not because they want to or think it's a good idea. People who are seriously affected by the cuts in public transportation because their walks to bus stops are doubled and tripled, or their waits for buses are doubled and tripled. People who are seriously affected when a Muni bus or BART train fails and more affected than just enough to tweet and laugh about it. People who don't join a gym to exercise, and don't join Critical Mass because bike safety in downtown San Francisco isn't really a high priority.

Today I walked to some errands because I couldn't drag myself out of bed. I walk a fair amount, but I always walk with some sort of purpose, although compared with people who walk because they have to walk, it seems frivolous. I walk with my dog a lot, and I walk with my camera a lot. I never walk without one of those- I barely know how. But I decided to walk to the grocery store, which meant no Mac. I did bring my camera with me, but I knew that there was little chance I'd find something to shoot- it's not a super scenic route and the light was terrible at midday. It turns out I didn't even take my camera out of my bag. The weather was atrocious, for Oakland, hot and humid, and I could see that I was potentially going to get drenched on the way back, but it was too hot to hurry. I saw very few other people walking to anywhere till I got closer to the stores, but they were there. Once I got to the more commercial area, there were definite signs of walkers, including people pushing the little mini-carts designed to push home groceries.

Once in the grocery store, I realized I had to change what I was going to buy based on what I could and would carry home. I skipped buying two heavy items- beer and laundry detergent- because really, I didn't want to deal with it on the hilly and hot walk home. I suppose I could have caught a bus, which probably is something regular walkers to the store do, but I'm not that familiar with AC Transit. I frequently take BART and Muni, but I don't know a single Oakland bus line, and I'm not even sure if one runs in my neighborhood. I see a lot of people standing around and waiting, and it seemed a lot more practical just to buy beer later at my corner store (and spend more money) and make another trip for laundry detergent.

So I walked back with my stuff, and I know I passed at least 4 corner stores/liquor stores, and I'm sure more, those are just the ones I've been to. I probably could have gotten 2 of my 4 items there, plus the beer- dish soap and onions- at at least two of them. I would have paid more, but I wouldn't have had to walk as far, in that nasty heat. One of them would have let me bring Mac into the store, which makes me happy. This article talks about how in many poor and "minority" neighborhoods, this kind of corner/liquor store is much easier to access than a grocery store, unlike in richer/whiter neighborhoods. It sure rings true in my neighborhood and in those of other other bloggers. And if you're walking/biking/scootering to your food, and you have to carry it home, and you're anything like me, I know where you'd go most of the time. The article is not simple: grocery stores aren't the only answer. On the other hand, eating healthy is expensive, and even harder if you don't have access to a store with expensive but healthy items. Karen Jetter writes
For people in higher-income neighborhoods, access to the healthier substitutes recommended for a healthy diet is as easy as their access to a supermarket. Almost all supermarkets stock a variety of the recommended substitutes. However, small independent grocery stores, usually found in low-income neighborhoods, often do not have in stock the higher-fiber breads and whole grains, or ground beef with ≤10% fat. The items may never be available, or available only some of the time. Within these neighborhoods, people who lack transportation may not have consistent access to healthier foods.
This is one of those race/gender/class issues. Janani Balasubramanian of Racialicious unpacks the white male privilege of the sustainable agriculture/local food movements. The back to the kitchen to prepare nice healthy food movement is nice, she writes, if you like to look back to (and project forward) nice wholesome family dinners where mom cooks and serves dinner at the kitchen table on the family farm. Sustainable, organic food is great, but extremely expensive at this point: none of the corner stores near me sell it, and the books advocating it (with the exception of Fast Food Nation) pretty much ignore it. Jamelle at Post Bourgie discusses a recent study about where people shop: skinny people shop at Whole Foods. Cooking isn't easy, she says, it takes time, which not everyone has: some people are working, and don't have time to navigate expensive (crowded) grocery stores, cookbooks, and the kitchen.

So back to being fit. I think it's great that people are walking, biking, eating well, going to the gym. I think it's important to acknowledge the privilege involved. When we walk and stop and get coffee, when we walk the dog because he needs it, when we're annoyed because the bus is late but it won't jeopardize or job or our childcare situation, that's privilege. When we can drive to any market we want, and get any food we want, that's privilege.