Why Many Americans Are Both Stuffed and Starved

November 24, 2015

Maybe you’ve heard people talking about hunger in America and thought, “There’s plenty of food in the United States to go around … are there really hungry Americans? Surely, no one in this country is malnourished.” It’s a great question deserving of a solid answer, and the facts may surprise you.

What’s the problem?

First off, the idea that “there’s plenty of food in the United States to go around” is only partially correct, and hinges upon what we define as “food.” It’s true that products claiming to be food are all around us, and cheap. Supermarket shelves are stocked with snack and convenience foods made from cheap corn and loaded with corn-based sugars, obscene amounts of fat and salt, and dozens of ingredients we cannot pronounce. Fast-food joints fill their value menus with items made from sub-par ingredients, many of which are super cheap because they’re subsidized by the government.

Food companies, knowing that low-income Americans are looking for ways to stretch their food dollar, have flooded poorer areas with fast-food restaurants and cheap snack foods. This has led to “food swamps” (what some call food deserts), in which there’s actually an overabundance of less nutritious food products. This leaves many low-income Americans both stuffed (with food products devoid of nutrients) and starved (for the nutrition their bodies need). Food Research & Action Center has found numerous links between living in poverty and the likelihood of being overweight or obese, especially among women and children.

Families who struggle to afford enough food often face similar problems with nutrition assistance programs. Many of the products that are redeemable through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, and formerly food stamps) and found on the shelves at food banks and pantries are canned and boxed convenience foods that are extremely high in sugar, fat and salt—the mindset being that food insecurity is a problem solved by increasing calorie input alone. But as you might expect, nutritionists warn that not all calories are created equal, and those devoid of much nutritional content may actual harm, rather than help, the body.

Why should you care?

Two-thirds of Americans, on average, are overweight or obese, and experts tie this number largely to our changing eating habits over the last half-century. That number is higher among racial and ethnic minorities, as well as individuals living in poverty—including children. As a result, those living below the poverty line are more likely to suffer from diabetes and other chronic, diet-related diseases. Diet-related diseases are, by definition, preventable, and when their occurrences increase, we all pay in the form of increased health costs.

This is a social justice issue as well. Evidence is growing, from numerous studies in the last several years, that junk-food makers actually target low-income communities of color with marketing. Mother Jones reported in 2013 that on the “low-income” and “stretch-and-save” sections of its grocery website, Walmart promoted far more unhealthy snack foods than healthy ones. Meanwhile, those living in poverty are less likely to say that fruits and vegetables are available in their neighborhoods than those not living in poverty. 

But let’s not forget that junk-food consumption and its subsequent health consequences are certainly not limited to low-income Americans—it’s a problem that affects all of us. As we pointed out recently, a new Centers for Disease Control report showed that American teens eat fast food at basically the same rate, regardless of their families’ income. Previously, a 011 report out of University of California-Davis found that fast food is actually most popular for those with middle incomes, rather than lower incomes, and that Americans with higher annual incomes (sometimes between $80,000 and $90,000) make up most of the business at the drive-thru window.

What can you do?

We can all keep the pressure on food makers to not only “health up” the products they’re pushing, but also to stop disproportionately pushing them in low-income neighborhoods and to children.

We can all support and call for the expansion of programs that encourage and incentivize the redemption of SNAP benefits on fruits and vegetables, like those created by Wholesome Wave and successfully rolled out in many major cities.

We can support and advocate for programs that educate school-aged children in healthy eating patterns, so that they’re less likely to succumb to the tempting ads of food makers and more likely to make nutritious—potentially life-saving—decisions.

Finally, we can continue to vote with our dollars by supporting companies, like many of those featured at Thrive Market, committed to making and selling real, wholesome food.

Photo credit: Natalie Jeffcott via Stocksy

We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you qualify for a free Thrive Gives membership! 

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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