What is… Causing The Obesity Epidemic in Low-Income America

Fast, cheap, supersized food has been running through America’s veins since sliced bread was invented. Also driving the heartbeat of America is innovation and making everything bigger and cheaper. The popular Netflix series History 101 explains that culture shifted after World War II from mom cooking 1,095 meals a year to eating out due to higher disposable income, entertainment value, and convenience. Supply chains shifted and convenient food became cheaper with increased production. The US government began subsidizing farmers to grow high energy-dense commodities like corn, soybeans, and wheat to fuel rising demand (1).

One study discovered the American diet now derives close to 40% of daily energy (calories is the way we measure the energy in food) from added sugars and fats.

With such a high ratio it’s no wonder why the U.S has the lowest-cost food supply chain in the world (2). That begs the question, who is impacted by this low-cost, high-energy dense food system the most? Low-income households.

Refer back to the beginning of the first paragraph; it was higher disposable income that allowed for convenient consumption of fast food. Fast-forward to today. Processed, high energy-dense foods are still convenient, but add to convenience, affordability and accessibility. And it’s not just fast food, but grocery store shelves are loaded with calorie heavy products.

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Now the tables have turned. People with lower disposable income are consuming this low-nutrient food. But do they have a choice or has the low-cost U.S. food supply chain inevitably determined what the low-income households can purchase?

Harvard researchers discovered that the healthiest diets were $1.50 more expensive than the least healthiest diets (3), so the actual cost of a healthy diet, independent of location, is higher. However, there is a general food price gap by location, too. We see that inner-city grocery stores, where many low-income communities are, have 4% higher prices overall than suburban areas due to less competition, less mobility for clients to respond to higher prices, and smaller stores with higher margins and therefore higher costs (4).

Another factor to consider is the role government-subsidized farming plays on the price of food. A subsidy is money that the US government gives to farmers in order that they are protected against changing prices of what their crops sell for and the amount of crops they are able to grow in a season. There are a few crops that are highly subsidized because US farmers are very efficient at producing them: wheat, soybeans, and corn (5).

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Large farms will grow these highly subsidized crops and grow less crops like fruit, vegetables, and other grains. This drives the cost of processed, pre-packaged foods down while increasing the cost of much-needed nutrient rich produce.

So, families with low-incomes, attempting to keep a food budget with a low salary or government assistance, will be primed to purchase energy-dense foods, at higher proportions, containing grains, added sugars, and added fats (6). And when they live in a food desert, the chances that they will find healthy fruits and vegetables decreases substantially because typically only convenience stores occupy retail space in food deserts. Furthermore, price is not the only point to consider; taste, nutritional knowledge, and confidence in cooking healthy meals are motivating when choosing food, too.

Changes in the food system from the top down through Government policy is a complex and arduous process. In the meantime grass-roots and state level action is vital for impacting the statistics now.

Well Fed is strategically set up as a mobile healthy food and nutrition education non-profit for this exact reason. We work with local and state partners to bring fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat, all products that tend to be expensive or inaccessible, directly to low-income communities. We partner with nutritionists to educate them about how to shop smart, cook healthy, and know the nutritional value of their food. Whether or not healthy food prices decrease, the US government starts to subsidize

healthy food, or more inner-city grocery stores open up and the general price of food decreases, Well Fed will be innovating programs and serving underserved, low-income communities in Arkansas.