To many of us in the food and wellness communities, having a food supply based on local, sustainably-raised and organic foods should be nothing less than mandatory – it should be our right. But for many Americans, these terms remain elusive and even far-flung. For those with lesser means, the discussion about our food system begins several steps below, at the definition of food as a nutriment, and it is in this discussion where the pitfalls of our current food policy are most striking, most depressing and most insidious. Put simply, in a nation that once declared itself independent on the basis that “all men are created equal”, our modern-day food system has erected a barrier to this egalitarian ideal by disproportionately affecting the life chances of less fortunate Americans.
What I mean by this is that our country’s food system, particularly over the last two decades, has transformed itself into a scheme that aids the promotion, growth and wide distribution of cheap, nutrient-depleted, disease-promoting foods that, due to exogenous factors out of our control, have become a large portion of energy consumption for groups of lower socioeconomic status (SES). And through these diets (as research has shown) these groups have become more prone to health problems, particularly obesity – a formidable condition that increases risk for life-threatening chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and certain forms of cancer.
These unfair characteristics of the food supply, out of the control of most Americans, and where the burden of disease falls disproportionately on people with limited resources, needs to change, and recently, a handful of researchers have been studying this problem in order to pinpoint specific factors that may help us in our fight to change our government’s food policies. Scientists have pointed to two factors relating to the food supply that may promote obesity in groups of lower socioeconomic status: (1) access to foods and (2) the cheapening of foods – particularly “calorie-dense” items.
Adam Drewnowski, Director of the Center for Public Health and Nutrition at the University of Washington examined how obesity could be linked to neighborhood-level measures of economic prosperity and found that obesity rates reached 30% in very deprived zip codes but touched only 5% in the most affluent neighborhoods. This led to the assumption that neighborhood prosperity could be a good predictor of access to healthy foods. Researchers at NYU took their analysis further and looked directly at the availability of healthy foods by neighborhood and noted how areas of lower SES were found to have fewer supermarkets (which are associated with less obesity) per person, a greater number of fast food outlets, decreased availability to healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, and necessitated farther distances to travel to obtain good food.
Drewnowski also looked at the role of cost in “energy-dense” food items, or items that pack the most calories per gram but tend to be nutrient-deplete such as baked goods, packaged foods, potato chips, sodas and fatty snacks – all items which studies have linked to “passive overconsumption” and greater health risks. His team found that healthy eating costs more – a lot more. Based on a 2000-calorie diet, consumption of mostly junk food would cost a mere $3.52 a day versus $36.32 per day on a nutrient-rich diet. The study also found that the price of nutrient-depleted foods actually went down over time where as nutrient-rich foods outpaced inflation.
What does all this academic evidence mean in our quest to unveil the bias and hypocrisy of our current food system? Certainly, it provides us with the ammunition to confidently say that policy must be changed in the name of equality as healthy, disease-preventing foods have simply become out of reach and too costly for those Americans least fortunate. Since when has food served as the bearer of life chances, life expectancy and opportunity?
We need to change this and give back the right to all Americans to have equal chances at their dinner tables. Drastic changes to U.S. food policy are needed now. The subsidizing of “value-add” commodities like corn and soy need to be re-assessed in light of how these foodstuffs have influenced accessibility and cheap calories. It needs to be said that the promoting of these commodities, by both government (indirectly) and business (directly) has lead to an inequality that is so pernicious, stealth and inconspicuous that it’s gargantuan ramifications are poised to devalue the very ideals of what America stands for without so much as a peep.
And in conjunction with this re-evaluation of current policy, we need to come up with new and more powerful measures to build a foundation for our food system that ensures equality by making healthy food relatively cheaper, more accessible and better promoted. Tax incentives should be explored for bringing more supermarkets to under-served neighborhoods and for greenmarkets and community-supported agriculture to enter more low-income communities. Businesses should be incentivized to sell fresh, nutrient-rich product and a tax should be imposed on advertising calorie-dense products to children. Vending machines could be manipulated to bring this issue forward as well as a re-tooling of the government Food Stamp Program. Heightening awareness in schools around the MyPyramid dietary guidelines and making sure these can be upheld even amongst the lowest SES groups is imperative.
The bottom line is that our food system is failing on even its most basic of promises – sustaining human life – and it’s deficiencies are so colossal that it is even threatening the democratic ideals are country was founded on. The exploration of both access and cost in the link between low SES and obesity may be able to lead us in the right direction toward policy change, but in order to get on this path, we need to see the forest through the trees and come clean with ourselves that our food policy is not just about organic and sustainably-raised fare, but about making what nourishes us and our future within reach of each and every American, regardless of his or her socioeconomic means.