Limited Options Starving Many
by Emily Reinhardt •
Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:36 PM
The offerings of many bodegas on 125th St. bear
more resemblance to a frat boy’s dorm room than to
a food provider. There are potato chips, pork rinds
and an army’s supply of 40-oz. bottles of malt liquor.
There are some bruised bananas and apples in crates,
and a few loaves of whole wheat bread among mountains
of Wonder Bread.
The type of supermarkets and grocery stores in
poor neighborhoods often limits residents’ access to
nutritious food. For instance, lower-quality grocery
stores like Met Foods with sad-looking produce
abound in Astoria, Queens while greengrocers and
stores like Gourmet Garage saturate upscale neighborhoods
“[Lower-income food choice is] a huge issue of
access,” says Bryant Terry of B-Healthy, a group promoting
nutrition, youth leadership and youth activism.
“Even if you change the people’s perceptions, it’s an
issue of access. The food selection is horrible.”
Malnutrition, a major problem plaguing lowincome
communities, is not synonymous with hunger.
Hunger stems from a lack of food; malnutrition is
caused by a lack of nutrients. Over 20 percent of
Americans are clinically malnourished, whereas eight
percent are hungry. In fact, many Americans are both
malnourished and obese.
“Food insecurity” — meaning a lack of regular
access to healthy foods — is a large contributor to
malnutrition in poor communities, affecting some 33
million Americans nationwide. Though not technically
“hungry,” these people often consume diets that
lack many essential vitamins and minerals. It is often
the “food insecure” who dine on macaroni and cheese
by necessity, rather than by choice.
But even for the rest of Americans who have proper
access to nutritious foodstuffs, malnutrition may be
no stranger. According to an article on HealthWorld
Online (www.healthy.net), by Dr. Patrick Quillin, “At
least 20 percent of Americans are clinically malnourished,
with 70 percent being sub-clinically malnourished
Though food insecurity exists in both urban and
rural America, certain problems are inherent to the
urban poor. According to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), urbanites spend 30 percent more
money on food than other communities, but consume
fewer calories. Fresh produce is less accessible in
cities due to transportation and distribution issues.
Fast food consumption in the cities is also high. (Onethird
of America’s “eating out” is done at fast food
Urban, lower-income households also tend to buy
less at the supermarket. They buy more from stores
with fewer offerings, such as bodegas, even though
supermarkets sometimes undercharge the smaller
stores by as much as 10 percent. Supermarket prices
are four percent higher in urban and rural areas than in
the suburbs, but the suburbs contain the lowest
amount of poor households. In a perverse twist, the
richest people pay the least for their groceries. And
because the poor have far less money, they also spend
a far greater percentage of their disposable income on
food than the rich or middle class.
Back in 1970, when a cup of coffee was 25 cents,
the average household spent less than 15 percent of its
disposable income on food. By 2000, that number had
dropped to 10.6 percent. But this statistic does not
mean that food is a bargain for lower-class communities.
The percentage of after-tax income households
spend on food is 34.2 percent, for incomes between
$5,000-$9,000. In contrast, a household making
$70,000 spends 8.7 percent.
According to the USDA’s Economic Research
Service report “Expenditures for food require a large
share of income when income is relatively low...the figure
[average household spending on food] has sometimes
been misused to prove that food is a bargain.”
There is also a tendency to buy starchy and fatty
foods that fill the stomach but starve the body. This
offers little nutritional variety in daily and weekly meals.
Kuo Huang, an agricultural economist for the
USDA, writes that fluctuating food prices can also
weaken the nutrition that poorer households receive.
“If the price of beef goes up, while the price of chicken
remains the same, consumers will likely buy less
beef and more chicken.” This not only affects chicken
and beef but the foods that would be bought in conjunction,
like cheese for cheeseburgers. Food consumption
based on price and not nutritional value can
make for a much less-balanced diet.
An additional barrier faced by many communities
of color is the perception that “eating healthy is a
white bourgeois thing,” Terry says. The food activist
links this attitude to food production and in the perceived
high cost of eating healthily.
Though many immigrant families may cook up
nutritious meals, Terry says many immigrant youth
just want to be “Americanized.” McDonald’s and
pizza symbolize America to these young people, who
are often more enthusiastic about these foods then
their own food heritage. Mexican-Americans now
have the highest obesity rates of any ethnic group in
Over half of all Americans meet worldwide standards
for being overweight, while 23 percent of
Americans are obese.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2001 report on obesity
claims, “overweight and obesity are particularly common
among minority groups and those with a lower
family income.” This is especially true for women.
Lower-income women are 50 percent more likely to
be obese then those with higher incomes. African-
American woman suffer particularly, with 69 percent
“There needs to be a demand [for nutritious food in
lower-income areas], a demand needs to be created,”
says Terry. “Having fresh produce is meaningless if
there’s no one around to buy it.”