Healthy options needed downtown

Published 10:35 pm Friday, August 24, 2018

By Will Lee

Anytime construction starts around our Suffolk neighborhoods, my kids are always excited to ask, “What do you think they’re building?”

Their child-like guesses inevitably include dreams such as a giant indoor playground, a movie theater, or a Target. That last one may or may not be a wish from one of the adults in the family.

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Sadly, though, it seems that we are most often given the news that it’s yet another fast food restaurant. Even my kids know enough to sigh and wish for something better.

In the two miles it takes me to drive from my house to downtown Suffolk, I pass at least a dozen fast food restaurants, including duplicates of several places.

In contrast, drive through just about any area of North Suffolk, and you’ll find new construction bringing in healthier alternatives to McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Granted, even North Suffolk has its greasy fast food joints, but there’s definitely more variety in those neighborhoods.

Recently I spoke with the owner/manager of the Jason’s Deli in Chesapeake and asked him whether there would ever be plans to build a Jason’s Deli in Suffolk. “Oh, they’re looking into it,” he told me. But I immediately realized he didn’t mean our downtown area. Despite all the new commercial and retail buildings going up around town, no Jason’s Deli or other healthy alternative to our fast food overpopulation will show up here. Sure enough, he clarified that North Suffolk would be their target area if they were to come out this way.

So when I saw Yes Suffolk excitedly announcing the new Dunkin Donuts coming to town, I have to admit, I was angry. I can’t help seeing the systemic injustice perpetuated throughout our community and across our country when it comes to healthy food choices.

Chin Jou, lecturer in American history at the University of Sydney, recently released her book, “Supersizing Urban America.” She provides a helpful look at the historical and social realities that lead to seeing poorer, primarily black communities, saddled with the boom of unhealthy fast food franchises. In the late 1960s, the federal government wanted to help black communities become more entrepreneurial, and they did so by giving large sums of money to fast food companies like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s.

As Max Holleran writes for The New Republic, “The federal subsidization of McDonald’s and other chains to enter urban markets previously considered too poor or dangerous was meant to promote ‘black capitalism.’ It did make a select group of black entrepreneurs wealthy, but it was mostly a boon to fast food giants searching for new market demographics.”

Giving Nixon and Johnson the benefit of the doubt, it’s certainly the case that they meant to help poorer communities. But these policies ended up having the opposite effect. African-Americans are more likely to be obese than white Americans, according to For a whole host of reasons, lower-income people of all races are at greater risk of being unhealthy than people in higher-income communities, according to

I’m not a part of the conversations that happen behind the scenes in Suffolk to determine what restaurants and grocery stores come to our community, but it’s deeply disheartening to see another burger place or doughnut shop being built, further guaranteeing our local community will not live healthier lives but will instead continue to suffer from diet-related health risks and increased corresponding health care costs. A Suffolk resident even told me recently that their Medicare costs more because they live in this ZIP code, further illustrating the systemic problems that perpetuate poor health and poverty.

It will not do to simply dismiss these concerns with platitudes about capitalism as if we can’t provide creative incentives for healthy alternatives or deny more fast food places space in our town. We are not slaves to the invisible forces of supply and demand. We can create opportunities and invite healthy options.

Or we can continue to let the wealthy have access to healthy food and ignore the plight of those who can’t afford to drive to healthier restaurants and stores or eat at the high-end Suffolk restaurants offering healthy options. But the one thing we can’t do is refuse to take responsibility for our community’s health and correct the systemic food injustice in our community.

Will Lee is married and has three children. He lives in Suffolk.