Picture this: you’re a single mother, unemployed, and reliant on food stamps to feed your family. You walk into your local “Bargain-Mart” and the so called bargains can only be spotted on the towering pyramid display of sugar covered “Cocoa Puffs”. Next to that display, the whole grain organic “Life Fiber” brand sits dusty on the shelf. Not only is it triple the cost and microscopic in comparison to its super-sized neighbor, you have a five year old tugging on your arm and saying “Mommy, look, I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, everyone eats them, PLEASE can we get them”. What will you do? Splurge on the smaller box that you know is full of nutrition but won’t even last a week and will disable you from buying other groceries? Or, go for the larger bag, which although full of sugar and preservatives, will last the whole month and keep your child from throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the store? And the winner is option two.
The 2011 census revealed that 7.8 million American households receive federal food aid. Even with available assistance, households earning $10,000 to $15,000 a year, before taxes, spent a quarter of their income on food on average. (Census Bureau) Price increases are also felt by the working poor and those clinging to the middle income bracket by their fingernails. Prospects of being able to afford a healthy diet are only going downhill “From 1980 to 2000…prices for fruits and vegetables increased nearly six times. Meaning your dinner is cheaper today than it was in 1980 only if you avoid eating your greens. (YaleRuddCenter)
Adding to the risk of unhealthy decisions is the fact that poverty stricken areas are often used as “testing-grounds” for the latest and greatest in fast food developments. Fast food chains know that grocery stores and farmers markets which offer fresh produce, dairy, and meat are far and few in between in these areas. “There’s no choice,” said Jessica Quintana, leaving McDonald’s after a lunch of a fried chicken sandwich, fries and a soda. “It was nasty, but I ate it ’cause I’m hungry.” (2008,WashingtonPost) Often referred to as a food apartheid, thousands of people are trapped, geographically and financially, in a location where there simply is just no fresh vegetable for sale. Can you imagine? Our mommas taught us to eat our veggies; these mommas have to hope Reagan was right, that ketchup is a vegetable (By the way, he was wrong).
Food Chains also know that impoverished families often don’t have time to prepare home cooked meals in between juggling their multiple minimum wage jobs and other responsibilities which take priority over calorie counting. Not only are people in poverty eating out or enjoying the convenience of meals that only require mixing a couple of ingredients into a box of seasoning and noodles, families do not get the opportunity to exercise away the excess calories. Sure Michael Phelps can maintain rock hard abs and a 10,000 calorie diet, but hope for the rest of us is slim. Walking 15 to 20 minutes to work is not going to burn off a 3,000 caloric intake. Parents don’t have time, or energy, to exercise after 10-12 hours of working and even children who would like to get out and play are limited by school budget cuts and unsafe communities. So let’s recap. High food prices and the affordability and ease of unhealthy options + no time or space to exercise = a population which is quickly beginning to resemble overfilled balloons on the verge of bursting.
But unhealthy diets are affecting more than just the fit of our favorite pairs of jeans. Yale University recently conducted a study that uncovered a correlation between the recent rises in food prices and a rise in food-related diseases such as anorexia and bulimia. For a society that puts so much pressure on being thin, we hold a double standard with the constant notion that if you are not consuming the popularly advertised products then you are not accepted. The self-esteem issues that are plaguing us may not just be coming from societal pressures. Most Americans are not getting all of the nutrients that they need, which can affect our happiness and general productivity. And, really, doesn’t that blow your mind? Americans, with our fortified cereals and other packaged foods – how are we NOT getting enough nutrients? Remember, one serving of fruit juice has only 1/3 the nutrients of a serving of fruit, plus that fortified juice increases the risk of diabetes by 25%. In 2011, a top female triathalon runner in Oregon suddenly fell into a diabetic coma, no history of diabetes or unhealthy life practices . . . except that she drank two to three glasses of processed orange juice daily, with no fresh fruit.
Despite the constant reminders of the effects of unhealthy lifestyle decisions, the food industry still successfully manipulates our choices. The industry for what can best be termed as “junk food” rakes in billions of dollars annually and the unhealthiest sectors, fast food chains, are the most successful. “More people in the world recognize Ronald McDonald than any celebrity, political figure, or spiritual leader, and more people know the word Coca-Cola than any word except OK.” (YALE) These examples speak to the fact that this industry has power. Just like any other entity with power, they don’t always use their influence for good. Think about it. How many times have you turned on the T.V to a broccoli ad? Not only is the food industry propping up unhealthy lifestyles, they are targeting our youth. This age group not only spends the most time in front of the most commonly used modes of transmitting messages, T.V and the internet, advertisers custom make their ads to draw in children. This age group is unaware of the affects the products being advertised will have on their bodies, but they are unable to resist the cleverly crafted advertisement campaigns. While parents are fully aware of how unwholesome these commonly advertised foods are for their children’s health, the price often takes away their will-power to abstain. Researchers from the University of Washington have shown that calories from vegetables like zucchini and lettuce are 100 times more expensive than calories from oil, butter and sugar. (YaleRuddCenter) This difference is a sick representation of how far as a nation we have fallen into the trap of advertisement; after all, price is determined by demand.
The final problem stems from farming techniques. Farmers are choosing to produce corn, a basis of many food products, for ethanol instead of food because of the difference in profit. Subsidizing farmers so that they are encouraged to make crops for food is a short-term solution that many politicians are pointing to. However, paying farmers to produce more corn for food may actually make the problem worse. Sure it would allow more table vegetables to be produced in the short-term; however, in the long term not making every effort to reduce global warming would result in further weather pattern changes that would decrease crop yields and raise prices as well. Another problem with current farming practices is the use of genetically modified seeds to ensure a good crop yield. The nutritional deficit that occurs from using these “wonder” seeds is not reflected in the cost either, these crops are still just as expensive to you as the consumer.
The part that we should all be most fired up about is the fact that the solutions are so simple. Similar to the way that we limit advertising and accessibility of cigarettes and alcohol, our government needs to limit advertising and accessibility of unhealthy foods. Programs like Michelle Obamas healthy lunch reform project is a step in the right direction, but all too often lobbyists block legislation like this from being passed. Another problem with this particular piece of legislation, and many other policies like it, is lack of enforcement and oversight. Because healthier foods are more expensive schools are raising the price of lunch for those who are not receiving government assistance for purchasing their meals. Many families are not eligible for government assistance but still struggle to pay for price increases. To solve this problem we either need to reevaluate the national poverty line, which probably needs to be done for reasons besides the cost of food increasing, or provide subsidies which allow schools and other food venues to keep the prices low. The problem with subsidies is that most people are against more government spending. However, just like we have “sin taxes” on other items, a sin tax for unhealthy foods would help offset the cost of this program and force the market to rearrange the price structure of foods so that healthy food is cheaper and unhealthy food is more expensive. The next step is making sure that producers are labeling their products clearly and working to line up their priorities with the national priority of creating a healthy society. While controversial, employers also serve an important role in the process. More programs like the ones offered by some companies that offer free exercise classes for employees and require overweight individuals to pay higher health insurance create an incentive for people to change their habits.
When I hear people argue that these type of regulations or penalties will turn us into a nanny-state, I’m incensed. We’ve allowed conglomarates to make money off the fat of our children. We’ve allowed Nestle to be the nanny, to feed our kid ice cream and cocoa puffs for dinner. Nanny-state? That’s ridiculous. People said that when driving restrictions were passed into law, and now the seat belt law has saved billions of lives; how many more can we save, and upgrade, by asking people to consider, just consider, putting their foot down and demanding whole, healthy foods.
Picture this: You walk into your local “Bargain-Mart” to purchase the monthly supply of food for your family and all around you “sale” signs for organic vegetables and fruits draw your attention. Shoved in to a corner are the sugar and preservative filled boxed meals. They cost nearly triple the cost of the items on display and your 5 year old is telling you all about how his favorite cartoon character said that those items are icky. You fill your cart with nutritious options that you can feel good about serving to your family. When you finish going through the checkout line there is still money left over and the checker comments on how good you are looking these days. Yes, in this new and improved America, we do not have to compromise our health for the health of our pocketbooks. Let’s make it happen.
Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity — Home. 2011. Web.03 Nov. 2011. <http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/>.
“Impact of High Food and Fuel Prices on Developing Countries—Frequently Asked Questions.” IMF — International Monetary Fund Home Page. Web.03 Nov. 2011. <http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/faq/ffpfaqs.htm>.
“The Impact Of Rising Food Prices On Arab Unrest : NPR.” NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. Web.03 Nov. 2011. <http://www.npr.org/2011/02/18/133852810/the-impact-of-rising-food-prices-on-arab-unrest>.
Let’s Move! Web.03 Nov. 2011. <http://www.letsmove.gov/>.
Johansson, Ron, and Rob Gecan. The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices. Congressional Budget Office, Apr. 2009. PDF.
Wendt, Minh, and Jessica E. Todd. The Effect of Food and Beverage Price’s on Children’s Weights. U.S Department of Agriculture, June 2011. PDF.
Census Bureau. “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2011.” Census Bureau Home Page. 2011. Web.16 Nov. 2011. <http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2011.html>.