Who Can Really Afford to Eat Healthy in the U.S.?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Income inequality has gotten a lot of press recently. It’s on the minds of many Americans who are increasingly concerned about the disappearance of the middle class. Indeed, according to a 2014 report by Feeding America, the nation currently has the largest number of people living in poverty since statistics on poverty in America were first available some 50 years ago. Currently, in the United States, there are more than 46 million people living at or below the federal poverty line, equating to about 15 percent of the U.S. population.

Feeding America, the non-profit organization aimed at ending hunger in America, which published the study, notes that the current high rates of poverty have affected more than just the nation’s slow-to-recover economy and the worsening tensions between upper and lower classes. “Much like the poverty rate, the number of Americans who have difficulty putting meals on the table has stayed stubbornly high since the recession,” Feeding America notes.

Fourteen percent of American households have suffered from “food insecurity,” a term for what the USDA describes as “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods” at one time or another since the recession, according to Feeding America’s 2014 report on hunger in America. Currently, Mississippi — which, as it happens, is also one of the most impoverished states in the nation — has the highest rate of food insecurity, with more than 22 percent of residents experiencing food insecurity at one time or another.

Still more disturbing, 17.1 million Americans suffer from actual hunger, a figure which has budged only slightly since 2008 when, due to the recession, 17.3 million Americans went hungry. Further, “the number of householders receiving nutrition assistance from the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased by approximately 50 percent between 2009 and 2013,” the study found. It seems that aside from affecting Americans’ ability to spend, the economy as it stands is also affecting Americans’ ability to feed themselves.

There are other adverse affects of the rising gap between rich and poor households — even among those families who don’t suffer from food insecurity. According to multiple studies, there is a correlation between an person’s income and the quality of that person’s diet; in general, the wealthier you are, the better your diet, and the poorer you are, the worse your diet. This “food gap” it turns out, is widening steadily, even in lieu of a recovering economy.

According to a recent study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Public Health, the wealthiest Americans are eating better than they have in decades, while diets among the poorest Americans has deteriorated, meaning that more and more Americans are suffering from hunger, food insecurity, or poor diet due to cheap or unhealthy food.

Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard and one of the contributing authors to the Institute’s study, noted that, “After the financial crisis, the top 1 percent are doing very well — actually doing better, but the people in the low socioeconomic groups are doing worse.”

The Harvard study attributes declining diet quality among poor Americans to “the higher cost of convenient and healthy meals, as well as limited access to quality supermarkets in some poorer neighborhoods,” due to factors such as the existence of “food deserts” and a lack of transportation for many poor Americans.

The USDA defines a food desert as parts of the country that is devoid of “fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods,” and states that food deserts are typical of “impoverished areas.” Food deserts, the USDA says, are usually due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” Food deserts are one contributing factor that makes it even more difficult for poor Americans to improve their diet; instead of grocery stores, food deserts are often heavy on “local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods,” the USDA adds.

The Harvard study has some broader implications for federal nutrition programs and public policy as well; for instance, the study found that educating at-risk Americans can only help so much, though not because poor Americans don’t care about their health. In the end, “price is king,” as the saying goes. “All parents are interested in feeding their families healthy meals,” said Jessica Caouette, a nutrition and cooking instructor with Cooking Matters, a national nonprofit, per National Geographic. But Caouette adds that, “Price is a concern among low-income families.”

Feeding America’s study concurs. The study found that 80 percent of Americans bought the cheapest food available to them even when they knew it wasn’t healthy, suggesting that education only makes a difference insofar as people are able to afford to act upon that education. Somehow, it’s unsurprising that food costs continue to be prohibitive for poorer Americans, considering that income in the U.S. has stagnated and food costs are on the rise.

Experts are finding the evidence is clear that, “If you want to change the American diet, you have to change the policy,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. Schwartz says that, “Improving the food supply so people can eat what’s there and not be exposed to so many dangerous things” is crucial to improving diet quality among the poor.

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