Another Perk for the Rich: Healthy Eating. Why Poor Often Equals Fat


By Shari Roan

Viv Mag • March 15, 2012

What if we’ve been wrong up to this point about the  cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic? In spite of increased education on how to eat healthfully — less fat and sugar, more vegetables and fruit — obesity remains a public health crisis. Now food experts are beginning to turn their attention to the tougher aspects of the problem, such as how to create environments that make healthy food more attractive and accessible to consumers of all income levels.

Last week, VIV Says covered the newly released documentary A Place at the Table, which addresses the nation’s flawed food system and ways to address hunger and health in the U.S. This was also the topic of discussion last week in Anaheim, CA, at the Natural Products Expo West, which brought together 2,400 exhibitors and 63,000 attendees in a convention aimed at healthier living.

“We have a food-related health crisis in our country,” says Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician and founder, a website devoted to children’s health. “Driving down the price of food is critical. We have to find ways to get delicious food, nutrient-dense food, that is affordable.”

Tracie McMillan, author of the 2012 book The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (Scribner, 2012), told conference attendees that they have an obligation to consider the welfare of low-income people, too. “What if it was our collective obligation to feed people well?” McMillan says. “I’ve met a lot of people who say ‘I know I should eat well, but it’s hard.’ The food that will keep us healthy is out of reach, and we act like that is normal.”

The food industry, she charges, aims for the top economic tier of consumers and are advised  ”not to worry about the rest of us. . .We’ve treated healthy food as a luxury product.”

In her book, McMillan, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, spent time working undercover in various food-related jobs in order to better understand how food gets from farm to table. The experience was sobering and pointed to the numerous barriers lower-income Americans face in the quest to eat healthy.

While working on a garlic farm in California’s Central Valley, McMillan observed how farm workers’ wages were so low, the workers themselves couldn’t afford the fresh vegetables that are abundant in the region. McMillan earned only $2 to $3 an hour despite laws that require farm workers in California to make minimum wage. “People say food would cost more if we paid workers more,” she says. “As someone who has worked in the field … I have a hard time with the idea that we couldn’t pay farm workers a better wage.”

She also worked in the produce department of a Detroit-area Walmart, which “fed half the town.” There she found that produce was “on life support” most of the time — limp, dying and bland. “I had to ask myself: if this is the kind of produce people are offered can I blame them for eating processed food and junk food?” she says.

Finally, she did time in the kitchen at an Applebee’s in Brooklyn where, she discovered, the only fresh, whole foods were potatoes, onions, tomatoes and lettuce. Many of the meals were pre-packed and just heated to serve — not prepared on-site with fresh, whole ingredients as customers are led to imagine.

“We have a food system that is not very good about feeding us well. . .It’s easier to eat poorly than eat well,” she says. “We go for the food that’s easiest to get.”

McMillan argues that educating Americans that we are too heavy and should eat healthier just hasn’t had significant impact. Instead, she suggests, changes are needed in both the marketplace and by government to shift healthy food out of the luxury category.

“One of the big lessons I learned was that everybody wants good food,” she says. “The second big thing I learned is it takes an incredible amount of skill to run the food system, to feed America.”

About the Author: Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.

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