By Cassandra Leveille
The obesity epidemic, which swept up media attention in 2003, served as a catalyst to the organic craze, which has become a common household topic. The health benefits of organic and natural foods have been boasted over conventional and processed foods, which have been consistently linked with health issues such as heart disease and type II diabetes. With consumers desiring more organic and free-range food, it would seem such selections would be available at every supermarket.
But even though information on healthy foods may be more readily available than before the obesity epidemic, it has not resulted in across-the-board changes for people in all socio-economic classes. A closer look at the situation reveals healthy food remains the privilege of those in higher socio-economic classes. Wealth still remains a factor of health. The wealthier you are, the more ability you have to choose a favorable environment where a healthier quality of life, including healthier food, is readily available. However, it is not only the poor who are affected by these inequities. Those in the middle class also have a shorter life expectancy in comparison to the upper class.
According to Patrick M. Krueger, assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Texas, “lower income often predicts the consumption of lower quality goods and services, poorer health behaviors, fewer social supports, higher stress, lower quality housing, and more limited access to healthcare–factors that all lead to worse health and higher mortality rate.”
These disparities are at the heart of the documentary series Unnatural Causes, which the Finger Lakes Environment Film Festival screened last year on the Ithaca College campus. The 10-part series offers a holistic view of the problem of health inequities in America, analyzing health factors that are seemingly unrelated at first glance, whereas typical discussions of health may include the health care system as well as what we consume. However, Unnatural Causes showcases how other indicators–often neglected in the common discourse–eventually add up to poorer health.
One such factor includes chronic stress, due to living conditions, lack of job and food security. People afflicted with chronic stress are more prone to die earlier than their wealthier counterparts.
Why don’t people in low-income areas make healthy dietary choices? The problem doesn’t simply lie in not having enough disposable income to purchase healthier food, although this is certainly a contributor to their lack of access. Rather, people cannot access food because it is literally not available to them. The phenomenon of people living in an area with limited or no access to local supermarkets is known as a “food desert”: Food deserts are often littered with convenience stores or fast food restaurants, leaving people with cheap but unhealthy options. Unlike their richer counterparts, poor neighborhoods have 30 percent less supermarkets.
Food deserts initially coincided with the “white flight” in the ’60s and ’70s. Supermarkets followed affluent whites into suburban areas, leaving people in low-income areas stranded without access to healthy foods. As a result, unhealthy, over-processed food grew abundant in poor areas, leading to higher incidences of diseases.
Stewart Auyash, associate professor of health promotion and physical education at Ithaca College, noted many investors don’t see it as economically viable to open supermarkets in poor areas. As a result, Auyash says, “the competition isn’t as much between supermarkets and the costs of food increase. It may be hard to believe, but food costs are higher in poorer areas of our country, rural and urban, than in suburban areas, where there are…wealthier people.”
This disparity forces many to travel further for food. Traveling arduous distances in order to secure food restricts the amount of fresh produce they can purchase. Such is the case with Lesli Calderon, a woman living in a low-income neighborhood in the Portland, Oregon area. An article from The Oregonian tells how, to procure food for her family, Calderon has to take a bus to the closest supermarket, which is more than ten miles away.
In New York City, particularly in the Kings and Queens area, the problem has been aggravated by supermarkets closing due to the economic crisis. Higher rents, and tight profit margins, have contributed to the closings. The supermarkets have been replaced by pharmacies that sell only high-processed foods which contribute to health problems. These pharmacies simply compound the problem by selling medicines to help control the very health problems the establishment of the pharmacies brought on in the first place.
Some areas, such as New York City, have attempted to combat the growing issue of food deserts. Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough president, has proposed tax incentives to supermarkets to open in low-income areas. Others, such as Joel Rivera, the majority leader of the New York City Council, have suggested zoning laws that would create a cap on the number of fast food joints in areas with high obesity rates. Such laws have already been implemented in South Los Angeles, where the obesity rate is twice as much as in the city’s wealthier areas.
A strong correlation exists between the abundance of fast food restaurants in the area relative to fewer supermarkets in the area and incidence of obesity. Zoning laws alone will not curb obesity or solve health problems for people in low-income areas, unless used in conjunction with opening more supermarkets that make fresh produce available at an affordable price.
For many, the Obama administration offers hope for changing the massive amount of unhealthy foods Americans are exposed to. However, as it stands now, our food agenda is largely out of Obama’s hands. It was set two years prior to his election, in 2007’s U.S. Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill, a piece of renewable legislation amended every five years, largely determines what products are available for Americans on a mass scale. While the original farm bills produced during the Great Depression paid farmers to not overproduce their crops, the current farm bills promote overproduction of subsidized foods, such as corn. The five food staples that farmers are currently subsidized for producing (soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton and rice) appear in abundance on our supermarket shelves, often in the form of high-processed foods.
Julia Lapp, assistant professor of health promotion and physical education at Ithaca College, also notes many junk foods currently on the market are essentially these same staples in reconstituted forms. “Because the government subsidizes the corn and the wheat, we have a glut of products like this on the market that are very cheap to produce and all you have to do is add vanilla flavor and you’ve got a new variety of Pop Tarts,” she said. “You would think, looking at a grocery store aisle, we have a lot of variety but we really don’t have the variety we think we do. We have a variety of flavors, maybe and forms, but in terms of the ingredients wheat, corn, cheap plant oils, salts, sugar, it’s not as varied as we would think at first glance.”
While these products are cheaper, they are not healthy. Fruits and vegetables cannot compete with a bag of potato chips. A partial solution to the lack of affordable healthy food for people in low-income areas could be to subsidize fruits and vegetables. It might also lead people from all economic backgrounds to incorporate these foods into their diets. With local governments giving economic incentives for supermarkets to build in low-income areas, these areas may at last see healthy food flourish again in their neighborhoods.
Cassandra Leveille is a sophomore writing major. E-mail her at [email protected].