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Food Prices, Obesity, and Justice

Posted by tinako on July 4, 2010

The Rudd Center undertook a survey of food available in low- and high-income areas of New Haven, CT.  They found that:

Low income areas tend to have lower quality food available.  You would be less likely to find baked chips and whole grain bread, for instance.  If there are fruits and vegetables, they are often of lower quality.

Because food in low-income areas is often sold in smaller convenience stores and drug stores, items are often much more expensive as well.  In 1971 you would have paid 20% more for products in convenience stores.  In 2008 you would pay 55% more.

The next step would be to take a survey of a low-income area that was just about to get a supermarket and then see how things changed.  If the availability of healthy food were to improve, then perhaps tax incentives could be offered for companies to open stores in low income areas.

Elizabeth Goodman

I listened to another podcast interview where the woman, Elizabeth Goodman, director of the Child and Adolescent Obesity Program at Tufts/New England Medical Center, made the point that it’s really not fair if people are born into a disadvantaged environment that makes them sick because healthy food is not available in their low-income area.

She said being poor increases your risk of obesity.  The poor may not have the money to buy appropriate products, so they may be forced to buy foods that cost less and have greater caloric density, like fast foods.  Parents may work multiple jobs, which may lead to the kids having more sedentary time in front of the TV.  School systems might not have appropriate playgrounds, neighborhoods might not be safe to play, and environment can be stressful.  Stress can affect insulin and cortisol, leading to weight gain, especially in the waistline, which especially leads to greater risk for coronary heart disease and diabetes.

We tell people to behave differently without giving them the means to do so.  “Our social policies create contexts in which people live their lives, beyond their control, and this enivronment has effects not just on behavior but also on biology.  If those challenges are distributed differently across different subgroups, then that creates an injustice for the people living in the disadvantaged communities.  It puts them, through no fault of their own, at a greater risk for disease, and it’s something that we as a society need to rectify.  Not the individual, but we as a society through our social and economic policies.”

Professor Brownell (the interviewer) pointed out that if healthy food is not available to low-income groups, then no matter how much they know about nutrition, and no matter how much they want to improve their diet, it will be a struggle.  Government can either try to improve access to healthy food or blame the individual, say that people just need to know more about nutrition.  He feels blaming the individual is the easy way out, and the wrong way.

Dr. Goodman agreed and said, even more, when we tell people how to eat and then make it impossible for them to be successful, that is very stressful for them.  And then we stigmatize them, which makes everything worse.

She believes the single most important thing government can do is to recognize that different sectors need to work together to solve this problem: agriculture, education, health, and transportation are all involved in the problem of childhood obesity.  She gave an example of a policy you would not think would be involved in obesity: No Child Left Behind.  The schools may cut phys-ed and health classes to prepare for testing so that students will pass and the school doesn’t lose funding.  Stress levels also rise, as teachers and families worry the school will be labeled underperforming.  Some of the kids fear they will not graduate and so they drop out, leading them to be low-income adults at greater risk for obesity.  So not only does this educational policy lead to “psychological, physiological, behavioral, and socio-structural” effects that lead to increases in obesity in youths, but they are also visited more frequently on low-income area schools, the ones most likely at risk of being labeled underperforming.

She would like to see an obesity-impact assessment or health-impact assessment applied to government policies.


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