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Akhil Surapaneni | Class of ’18 | February 22, 2016

Every single year, I have the same conversation with my dentist. She asks me, “Have you been flossing?”

“Nope. I keep forgetting to”, I respond.

“You know, you’re lucky that you haven’t gotten any cavities yet.”

“I know.”

To be honest, I don’t know why I don’t floss. I simply haven’t incorporated it into my daily routine and I haven’t experienced any negative consequences so far. I pretty much only really think about my teeth when I go into the dentist and this attitude is largely reflective of society as a whole. We tend to think of health as purely a medical issue that is cloaked in the iodoform odor of hospital walls. However, as is the case of my flossing habit (or lack thereof), health is the accumulation of our daily activities; it is a sociological issue. Not all people in society have an equal access to healthy life.

Over this past semester, I have worked as an intern for CAN DO Houston, an organization dedicated to increasing access to health in impoverished communities. Every week, as I drive through the local neighborhoods, I am reminded why the status quo needs to change. The sidewalks are dilapidated or non-existent. The streets are bereft of walking destinations. According to Srinivasan et al, the lack of safe sidewalks in urban areas has decreased the number of children walking to school and contributes to an increasingly sedentary life for children—a factor for childhood obesity. Additionally, I am surprised by what I’m not seeing on my drive— supermarkets. Powel et. al found that low-income neighborhoods have significantly fewer supermarkets (p< 0.01) than middle-income neighborhoods. Instead, the streets are filled with corner stores and fast food restaurants, which supply fatty and high caloric meals. According to Kwate et. al, fast food companies specifically aim to open locations in low income neighborhoods because fast food represents a low price point to eating out. I believe that this is a form of exploitation because companies are using the fact that impoverished residents don’t have access to healthy food to surround them with junk food.

At CAN DO Houston, we started an initiative called Healthy Corner Stores to introduce produce, fruits and vegetables into existing corner stores. Then, once every two weeks, we go to a few corner stores and demo some dishes that we made from the healthy options inside. A few weeks ago, I remember offering an elderly African American lady some herbed vegetables.

She chuckled, and sweetly said, “Honey, I don’t eat vegetables.”

Her comment struck me. Ever since I was a child, my parents have incorporated vegetables into my diet, forcefully at first and less so over time. Now that I am in college, I don’t have anyone to force me vegetables. But I eat them because, unlike flossing, I have made them part of my daily habit. Simply increasing access to healthy food is not enough to increase healthy eating habits in communities because it doesn’t change the habits of the impoverished residents. We need to spur change by educating the people about healthy eating habits.

The main portion of my internship is spent leading a CAN DO initiative called Let’s Move, which aims to give local residents a safe outlet for physical activity and knowledge about nutrition. We encourage participants to feel healthier through exercise and give them the knowledge to sustain that feeling through nutrition discussions. I chose to be an intern at CAN DO Houston because I don’t think that it is fair that people don’t have a chance to be healthy based on their racial and demographic characteristics. I believe that through initiatives like Let’s Move and Healthy Corner stores, we CAN DO something to fix that.