WHY FOOD EQUALITY RESIDES ONLY IN THE BURBS
By Kelly Turner and Adiana Castro
The media and health industry like to talk a lot about the obesity epidemic, and how to curb it: Americans need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed foods. It sounds easy, and for many of
us is a completely attainable and realistic goal. But for many Americans who live in low-income communities, it’s just plain not an option.
There is a growing disparity of food prices, quality and grocery store availability in the United States between inner-city and suburban communities, and the effects are becoming more apparent with each passing year.
It has nothing to do with will-power, laziness or even lack of nutrition education. For families in low-income neighborhoods, like so many things in life, getting a nutritious meal all comes down to money.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that in addition to having food availability at all times, food security also means being given access to these foods at affordable prices, and understanding nutritional concepts.
It seems like a simple concept – who doesn’t have access to food? – but food insecurity is prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Food security and access to grocery stores varies greatly between low-income and suburban neighborhoods. Suburban neighborhoods statistically have numerous supermarkets that tend to have higher quality products, nutritionally speaking, where lower income communities are overrun by convenience stores that sell low quality, high calorie, nutritionally void food items for low prices.
There have been multiple studies on adults and adolescents that chart the connection between neighborhood income and residents’ access to grocery stores, and their consumption of fruits and vegetables, and high calorie and high fat snacks. The results indicated that neighborhoods with complete access to supermarkets tend to choose healthy products and, overall, have a better food quality intake.
Chung and Meyers conducted a study in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metropolitan area where about 50 grocery store item prices were compared from 55 different stores in the area. The results indicated that the poor tended to pay a little more for their groceries, and that larger chain grocery stores, where the prices are less expensive, were not located in the poorer neighborhoods, period.
Supermarket chains like Whole Foods or Stop and Shop set up shop in mid-to-upper class neighborhoods. In the Boston area, a typical Whole Foods supermarket is located in a neighborhood with an aveage median family income of $73,000 and the median family income for a Stop and Shop supermarket is $57,000. The median family income for the city of Boston, however, is $44,151.
So where does this leave low-income communities? To buy their groceries from convenience stores like fast food chains, gas stations and discount outlets with limited options. One can’t eat fresh fruits and veggies if there is nowhere to get them.
Morton and team carried out a study to investigate the association of the local food environment and the prevalence of cardiovascular disease. The researchers analyzed availability of supermarkets, grocery stores and convenience stores in Mississippi, Maryland, Minnesota and North Carolina, and the rate of residents’ cardiovascular diseases. The majority of the study population was white, overweight adults.
The results indicated that the availability of supermarkets and grocery stores correlated with a decreased prevalence of being overweight, while the majority of convenience stores correlated with an increased prevalence of being overweight. The researchers argued that the local food environment should be considered when trying to find solutions to the obesity epidemic.
While the availability of supermarkets with nutritious fresh foods is limited to higher income families, fast food restaurants are found on every corner in low-income neighborhoods. For instance, McDonald’s locations, on average, are found in neighborhoods with a median family income of $44,000 – the income that is too low for Whole Foods or Stop and Shop to service.
So what does this mean? Dietary patterns are known risk factors
for diseases such as obesity, coronary heart disease and diabetes. Furthermore, several studies have shown an economic and racial divide for healthy food access. Residents of rural, low-income and minority communities are regularly ignored by supermarkets and grocery stores, and their health is suffering for it. Obesity is more prevalent among minorities in low-income communities, because they only have access to, and can afford, overly processed, high calorie foods.
Bottom line: Our local, state and national environments influence our health decisions, in particular our access to healthy, quality foods. Supermarkets tend to be located in middle class neighborhoods, while fast food restaurants are located in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, an entire population is left without access to healthy foods because of the amount of money they make, which isn’t the food security all Americans are entitled to.