The rise of contagious disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity has rapidly increased among low-income Americans.1 What has happened over the past few decades to create this shift in health inequality? Similar to a domino effect, the income gap between the rich and the poor has created food inequality and insecurity, which in turn, has a DIRECT link to poor health outcomes in low-income Americans.
Even though America is one of the wealthiest nations, 48% of our population is considered low-income or poor.2 You may ask…
Why is income inequality a problem?
Income inequality creates financial constraints on our day-to-day lives. The majority of the American people cannot afford to take care of their health because they put housing, clothing, and other expenditures first. Because of this we experience disease and sickness, which is at a all time high in our country.3 Considering a healthier diet to prevent disease is put on the back burner since living to see another day trumps all priorities.
Americans who live in low-income neighborhoods lack access to fresh and affordable healthy foods, which can help prevent disease and sickness. To put this in perspective, 23.5 million Americans do not have access to a supermarket within a mile from their home.4 Instead they live in food deserts, areas with restaurants and liquor stores that offer cheap food items with low-nutritional value.5
Some might suggest that if low-income people really wanted to they could eat healthy, regardless of access or budget. Unfortunately this is a myth.
MONEY and ACCESS are the 2 biggest obstacles standing in the way of food equality and security.
The price of healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, nuts, and non-dairy milks are unaffordable for families on a tight budget.6 To stretch their dollar these families choose the cheapest and unhealthiest items such as sugar dense cereals, juices, starches like potatoes and corn, and fatty meat to supplement their diets.6
The idea of traveling to a wealthier city with supermarkets is simply unrealistic for low-income families.6 Most don’t have access to a car, public transportation, money, or even time to buy food in another city.
Currently, 50 million Americans live in food insecure households and one third are experiencing an even harsher level of very low food security.7 In addition to this, there is a direct link between food insecurity and the prices of food, which makes healthy food virtually unattainable to low-income consumers.7
Families that skip out on healthier foods and meals altogether because they cannot afford it are greatly impacted by food insecurity.8 As most of us know if we eat unhealthy foods on a regular basis or aren’t receiving the proper amount of nutrients this will negatively impact our health.
Here’s the breakdown of the health effects of food insecurity…
Food insecure children have oral health issues, low-nutrient intake, cognitive issues, high levels of aggression and anxiety, poor overall health, and the likelihood of hospitalization and mental health issues.7
Food insecure adults have higher levels of depression, mental health problems, lower nutrient intake, long-term health issues, diabetes, and chronic disease.7
Food insecure seniors have low nutrient intake, limitations to their everyday living, and poor or fair overall health.7
The list seems endless!
Since low-income individuals aren’t making enough money to afford food, 1 in 7 Americans now rely on food banks or government assistance programs to supplement their meals.7 Another alarming fact, 59% of food insecure households utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).9
The majority of the food insecure population in America relies on the government for help yet there have been minimal improvements in ending food insecurity or increasing health outcomes amongst the low-income population.9
Some may argue that its not the government’s responsibility to increase the budget or assistance provided to low-income Americans. Those people may be surprised by the fact that food insecurity is costing the U.S. $90 billion in medical care costs, burdening the emergency food systems, and lowering the productivity of workers as well as the likelihood of educational attainment.10 Moreover, chronic disease alone takes the lives of 7 out of 10 Americans today and accounts for “75% of the nations health spending.”11
So, how does the health of low-income individuals impact every American, rich or poor?
It’s actually fairly simple. Since the productivity of a worker is impacted by their overall health, this greatly impacts the economic output financially…. by $260 BILLION per year!11 Healthy people are more likely to attend work daily, creating productivity and stimulating the economy, which is beneficial for everyone.11
Unfortunately, low-income individuals are constrained for time because they are working to make ends meet to afford the basic necessities of life. Due to the lack of time they resort to unhealthy and cheap food options, which will be a continual behavior unless practical solutions are formulated to address food inequality and insecurity in America.
Here are 2 solutions to end this growing problem.
- Adopt a human rights framework that makes food a necessity just as freedom and liberty.
- Create policy to make healthy foods more affordable and accessible.
As humans we’re easily influenced. One of the biggest influences on our behavior is our environment. Japan and Monaco are the top two healthiest nations in the world, which can be accredited to their access to fresh and healthy foods.12 Because Japan and Monaco have access and the means to afford a healthy diet this has added to their life expectancy and health outcomes, which could be the same for Americans if steps are taken to increase food accessibility and affordability.13
POLICY to make food more affordable and accessible specifically to low-income individuals could greatly alleviate our health problems as Americans. Having more options and money to afford healthy foods is taking preventative measures through the aid of nutrition to avoid disease and sickness.
POLICY that awards health food markets and restaurants financially would give companies incentive to build stores in food deserts, which is a win-win situation for business and most importantly the American people.
When we decide to adopt a human rights framework, which makes food a basic right, we will be better educated, productive, and healthier. And above all…
We will implement the belief that every American regardless of sex, race, class, or gender, deserves a fighting chance to a healthy and long life.
- Work, stress, and health and socioeconomic status. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/work-stress-health.aspx. Accessed January 31, 2017.
- A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. http://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/a-guide-to-statistics-on-historical-trends-in-income-inequality. Accessed January 30, 2017.
- Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the U.S.: 2014. The United States Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-157.html. Published September 16, 2015. Accessed January 30, 2017.
- Treuhaft S, Karpyn A. The Grocery Gap: Who has access to healthy food and why it matters. The Food Trust. http://thefoodtrust.org/uploads/media_items/grocerygap.original.pdf. Accessed January 28, 2017.
- Guptill AE, Copelton DA, Lucal B. Food & society: principles and paradoxes. Cambridge: Polity Press; 2016.
- E Andrieu, N Darmon, A Drewnowski. Low cost diets: more energy, fewer nutrients. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;60:434-436.
Crimmins EM, Hayward MD, Seeman TE. Critical perspectives on racial and ethnic differences in health in late life. National Academic Press. 2004. doi:10.17226/11086.
- Gunderson C, Kreider B, Pepper J. The economics of food insecurity in the United States. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. 2011;33:3:281-303.
- Drewnowski A, Eichelsdoerfer P. Can low-income Americans afford a healthy diet? Nutrition today. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2847733/. Published November 2010. Accessed January 30, 2017.
- Weinfield NS, Mills G, Borger C, et al. Hunger in America 2014 National Report. Feeding America. http://help.feedingamerica.org/HungerInAmerica/hunger-in-america-2014-full-report.pdf. Published August 2014. Accessed January 28, 2017.
- Chilton M, Rose D. A rights-based approach to food insecurity in the United States. American Journal of Public Health. 2009;99(7):1203-1211. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.130229.
Baker EA, Schootman M, Barnidge E, Kelly C. The role of race and poverty in access to foods that enable individuals to adhere to dietary guidelines. Prev Chronic Dis. 2006; 3(3):A76.
- Preventative Health Care. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/toolstemplates/entertainmented/tips/preventivehealth.html. Published June 12, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2017.
- Country Comparison: Life expectancy at birth. Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/library/PUBLICATIONS/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html. Accessed January 30, 2017.
- Yong V, Saito Y. Trends in healthy life expectancy in Japan: 1986 – 2004. Demographic Research. 2009;20:467-494.