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printable versionhunger news

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 like SoHo.

“[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 (less obvious).”

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 establishments.)

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 America.

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 considered “obese.”

“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.”

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