Inequality limits access to healthy food
In 2013, 45.3 million Americans lived in poverty and 49.1 million lived in food insecure households, according to Feeding America. A number of studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between socioeconomic status and health. Obesity rates are much higher in low-income communities, and people living below the poverty line are more likely to suffer from numerous diseases and typically experience higher rates of mortality, according to the Organic Consumers Association.
In other words, food inequality in America is a very real and severe issue, and it demands a solution. Across the United States, it is common for those living below the poverty line to eat unhealthily, as they typically do not have access to the more expensive, nutritious foods sold in organic markets. Instead, they eat what they can afford.
The underlying issue here, as Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University London, claims, is that America’s capitalist principles have morphed food into a commercial commodity rather than a natural right.
“It’s a disgrace that this issue exists in advanced industrial societies, and it should not be tolerated,” Caraher said. “It is an issue of rights and respect for people.”
There are three primary roots to this national epidemic, according to Caraher. The first is the rising inequality of the socioeconomic classes of American citizens, which makes food acquisition more difficult for those at lower income levels. Secondly, the nationwide food system excludes some people due to high food prices, low wages and food deserts, or regions where people have no immediate access to grocery stores or farmers markets. Additionally, industry control with little state or federal regulation leaves little room for planning for food at a community level.
“Since 2007, all of this has been driven by the global economic crisis, which has seen the growth of food banks, while commercial and financial banks are bailed out by governments,” Caraher said. “As a result, the rich are protected while the poor are driven to food banks.”
The economic crisis has led to the expansion of the “working poor,” or people who are employed, but their income is below the cost of living. Today, the working poor must resort to food banks or government programs to fulfill their food needs. However, working poor families can’t always afford three meals per day. In the state of Arizona alone, it would take nearly a billion dollars to provide them with meals they currently miss, according to recent data from Association of Arizona Food Banks.
“A key problem is the way in which the poor are stigmatized, with differentiations between the deserving and undeserving poor,” Caraher said. “In public health terms, the argument is that increasing riches in a society results in increasing inequality, and that to address this you need to redistribute wealth.”
Caraher also said: “The move away from access to food as a citizen’s right to one of charity and philanthropy is a common trend in advanced liberal economic societies. But what this does is depoliticize the situation, and it allows the government to say things are being done and withdraw from services.”
A commonly proposed solution to this overarching problem of foodonomics is eating locally.
Canadian blogger Kevin Kossowan documents his experiences obtaining local food in a web series. He claims in his blog to spend $400 per month for a family of five with three young children, which breaks down to less than $1 per meal, per person. His family’s food budget is $2.66 per day, or only about $80 per person each month. Additionally, all of the food is either grown or butchered locally, sometimes even personally, according to his blog.
Kossowan said in a blog entry entitled, “My Food-onomics,” despite common perception, obtaining food locally is not too time-consuming and is highly cost-effective.
Some believe, given resources such as government assistance programs and food banks, it is feasible for those living below the poverty line to be able to afford to sustain themselves. However, Caraher argues the opposite, and said solutions like this one depoliticize the situation in favor of individual or community action and exclude the poor who need resources of capital assets.
“This is not a solution to the bigger problem,” Caraher said. “Clearly, initiatives like this have a place. This might be more in terms of making people politically aware of the situation and providing a voice to the disadvantaged and excluded. But there is a danger in proposing these as solutions.”
Instead, Caraher offers suggestions for the issue such as being politically active by forming movements like food policy councils.
On a national level, he proposes linking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) initiatives to local or regional food supplies, setting targets to lower the amount of people obtaining food aid and changing the perception of food banks to be an indicator of failure of the system, not success.
“We need to give power to local planning to be interventionist around food,” Caraher said. “Let’s locate the debate within a citizenship one, and start thinking of food as not a product, but a right.”
Natalie Shanklin is a freshman journalism major who knows that fruit, not money, grows on trees. Email her at [email protected]