October 8, 2012 by lschoenfeld
While qualifying an area as a “food desert” may be misleading (see Esther’s post about our very own UNC campus being a “certified” food desert), there is a significant amount of food insecurity in our country that must be addressed in ways beyond simply providing emergency food assistance. I had first-hand experience witnessing the astonishing level of food insecurity that exists in the Triangle area this summer while working at the InterFaith Food Shuttle. The IFFS is doing a great job trying to make sustainable changes to food access in the greater Raleigh area by addressing food production and healthy food availability by teaching low-income communities how to produce and prepare healthier food. Programs like this are a great step towards reducing disparities in healthy food access and are making a difference in many people’s lives in our region.
However, for all the positive changes happening from programs like those provided by the IFFS, the problem of nutrition and obesity in America goes well beyond whether food access and whether or not a person lives in a food desert or food swamp. The major issue at hand is the type of food available to and preferred by most people in this country, and the price people are willing (or able) to pay for what they eat.
Taste and cost are the primary drivers behind food purchasing in the United States, and Americans spend the least amount of disposable income on food compared to any other country. As reported by professor Mark Perry, “the 5.5% of disposable income that Americans spend on food at home is less than half the amount of income spent by Germans (11.4%), the French (13.6%), the Italians (14.4%), and less than one-third the amount of income spent by consumers in South Africa (20.1%), Mexico (24.1%), and Turkey (24.5%).” Americans also only spend about 30 minutes per day preparing foods compared to an average of 52 minutes per day around the world, demonstrating our emphasis on minimal time investment in our food and reliance on convenience.
And food in America is cheap and easy to find, even in food “deserts.” The shelves of most grocery stores are lined with low cost, easy-to-prepare junk food high in calories and low in micronutrients. Fast food restaurants provide dollar menu cheeseburgers and fries cooked in cheap vegetable oil, and these foods are ubiquitous; there are now five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S. Soda and other corn-sweetened beverages are far cheaper compared to most other beverages, and Americans have the highest per-capita soft drink consumption in the world. Whether looking at low-income neighborhoods or high income developments, it’s clear that Americans have plenty of access to affordable, easily prepared food and beverages
But unfortunately, cheap and convenient food comes with an unforeseen cost; our nation’s health.
We all know the statistics on obesity: more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and obesity-related conditions are some of the leading causes of preventable death. And the government, through agricultural policy, is making becoming obese even easier. The US PIRG reports that taxpayer agricultural subsidies are increasingly going towards junk food ingredients, mainly commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. These crops are not eaten as-is, but rather are manufactured into ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils that add cheap sweetness and unhealthy fat to the inexpensive processed foods that make up the bulk of grocery store products. Overall, our food policies largely support cheap, poor-quality food that provides sub-par nutrition and encourages overeating even among those who have little money to spend on their food.
So, where should our resources be going to combat the problem? Should we be working towards addressing food deserts, food swamps, or both?
Even in low income areas, people have plenty of access to “food”, but the type of food available and the demand for healthier options is the biggest issue. A recent UNC study found that living near a supermarket had little impact on whether people ate healthy food, but living close to fast-food outlets did. In other words, increasing the availability of healthy food does not generally lead to healthier eating.
So how do we change demand for healthier food? Is it the role of the government to tax junk food and soda, stop subsidizing commodity crops, and limit choices in SNAP food purchases? And where does personal responsibility come into play? Sure, the higher cost of healthy food can be prohibitive to lower income families, and I don’t blame them for choosing the cheapest food available. But maybe if as a nation we began prioritizing our families’ food budget over big-screen TVs and McDonald’s happy meals and didn’t equate caring about food quality with snobbish “elitism”, then we could reach a tipping point where eating healthily was seen as a normal part of life.
Yes, food deserts and food swamps are a major problem for many low-income families. But these food access disparities are a symptom of a much more insidious issue facing nutrition and health in our country; the prioritization of price, convenience, and taste over quality, nutrition, and environmental sustainability of our food.