In 1960 the average American was 25 pounds lighter than they were in 2002, and over the next 15 years Americans have only gotten fatter. This issue of obesity in the United States lies at the feet of the food industry. This post will analyze the way the structure of the food industry is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of low-income Americans. Are there restrictions in place that hinder certain groups from accessing healthy, fresh foods? The food industry is a multi-faceted entity comprising of food producers and manufactures worldwide. “Food industry” is essentially an umbrella term encompassing farmers, food processors, distributors, regulators, retail and more.
Although the food industry is made up of private companies, the Federal government certainly has its hand in those affairs. Every year the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, spends billions of dollars subsidizing crop production on farms. This seems beneficial to the farmers, but it really turns out to be most advantageous for big food manufacturers like Kraft or Nestle. You see, the crops that the government subsidizes are cheap and can easily be manipulated through food processing techniques to make the most money for manufacturers. Crops like wheat, corn, and soy can be put through numerous processes and turned in to any number of unhealthy foods you find at a gas station, bodega or grocery store. The practice of food manufacturing and processing inherently removes the nutritious integrity of foods but it makes them cheaper for consumption. Cheap foods, fat profits, and happy farmers seems like a triple victory right? Well when you take into account the health of Americans, this dichotomy becomes increasingly problematic.In 2010, 15.1 Americans lived in poverty. In the most poverty dense counties of the United States, there were much higher obesity rates. According to The American Diabetes Association, “counties with poverty rates of >35% have obesity rates 145% greater than wealthy counties.” So how could this be? Poverty stricken areas are often referred to as “food deserts.” These are neighborhoods deemed by the Census Bureau as being low-income in addition to having low-access to fresh, healthy food sources. This is incredibly problematic for the well-being of our nation’s citizens. How are the most affordable, accessible foods on the market so unhealthy that they are in one way or another the number one cause of death in America? We are putting the most vulnerable of residents in the United States in such a difficult position.
When a single mother of three, working two jobs, needs to feed her family, is she going to give up valuable time that could be spent earning money to pay bus or cab fare to the nearest grocery store to buy expensive fruits and vegetables to feed her family? Or is she going to take her children to the corner store or McDonalds on her block to get a cheap and filling meal, and go about her day? More often than not impoverished people choose the latter. It’s not a difficult choice either. So this begs the question; are unhealthy foods too readily available and healthy foods too scarce in poor neighborhoods?
There are two, maybe three, sides to this argument. The first camp of thought says yes, the food industry takes advantage of poor people who cannot access fresher foods. Something needs to be done by lawmakers because this could be addressed as a form of preventable medicine that could save billions on health care costs. The second argument is usually that of Republicans and those in the food industry. This is the stance that the government should not regulate private industry and it is the choice of Americans as to what they choose to eat. The third argument is perhaps a combination of the two previous ones and, states that the current involvement of government in the food industry is problematic because many members of congress have a hand in food corporation profits.
So before I go all House of Cards on you, there have been very few cases of overt corruption in US government, particularly as it pertains to the food and health regulations. However, lawmakers’ job depends on reelections and these come very frequently. This gives private corporations an opportunity to incentivize, inherently or not, law makers to vote one way or another, in favor or against regulations. So say Congress proposes a bill to regulate waste production by food manufacturers in Idaho. Nestle, a major food corporation with many plants in Idaho, might pay for Republican Senator Mike Crapo’s (real name, you can’t make this stuff up) campaign ads for reelection so that he votes against the bill. This seems kind of illegal…right? Well it’s actually perfectly constitutional under the Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. FEC which essentially allows unlimited campaign financing from any corporation.
This is an issue that needs to be in the hands of lawmakers since it has such incredible healthcare implications. Republicans want to cut down on healthcare spending and simultaneously deregulate the food industry. That is totally backwards. Preventative medicine is basically entails eating healthy, exercising regularly and practicing healthy habits (i.e. not smoking) for an extended period of time. This can be highly effective in reducing rates of obesity and in turn heart disease, type II diabetes, and even cancers.
There is still hope for the health of these impoverished individuals. There has been considerable success in the creation community gardens in low income food deserts. Usually owned by local governments, community gardens are established on vacant lots and allow residents of the neighborhood to contribute to and take from the garden. Benefits include: Increased access to (and consumption of) fruits & vegetables, increased physical activity and food security, reduced obesity rates and improved mental health. Small acts like these can reduce the stress of finding fresh foods in disadvantaged areas and increase the overall wellness of the community. Despite the struggle, we are taking steps in the right direction.