26 December 2008

Fast food and poverty

I regularly travel to different cities in the United States. I think about food as I drive through poor neighborhoods because the choices are so stark: fast food and junk food are all that's available in whole stretches of urban poverty. Whether it's Chicago or Baltimore, Philadelphia or Atlanta, what's obvious is that the poorer the neighborhood, the fewer food choices available. I drove through a stretch of urban decay in Philadelphia last week and as I drove I looked and looked for a grocery store. I didn't see one. What I saw were fast food restaurants and corner convenience stores with cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and junk food. I didn't see a store where you could buy a sack of flour, yeast, lettuce, whole tomatoes, potatoes or cabbage.
Fast food is expensive food, too. Dinner for five at McDonald's costs more than making dinner at home, and the McDonald's food isn't good for us, either. Good, healthy food is the cheapest food.
And what are the public health costs of not eating well? People living in poor neighborhoods with a preponderance of fast food restaurants are also the least insured. Obesity, diabetes, and other health risks associated with a poor diet are exacerbated by insufficient health care. The people with the least access to quality health care are the same people exposed to the worst food choices.


  1. thank you for noticing what i've been screaming about for years.

    many outside of urban communities are quick to judge from afar the serious issue of overweight and obesity prevalent in my community and continue the stereotypes that we are too stupid or lazy with no concern for our health. so not true, and historically quite the contrary. even if dietary health isn't priority #1 (usually its paying rent) in no/low income areas, it doesn't mean that we do not yearn for a good home cooked meal.. those of us with min wage or entry jobs and struggling to get by do not have the luxury of receiving food stamps (the poverty level standard is plain bullisht), and also many do not have the education to know how to make smart and healthy shopping choices. when you're poor, you buy whats cheap and what will fill you up fast.

    i live in philadelphia, have lived in minnesota (which by the way i think is the most health-conscious city in the country.. i couldn't find a donut shop anywhere!), in baltimore and many other cities you named.

    unless and until we start to have community gardening programs, with more free food programs along with education.. as the economy continues to fall (and even the so far proposed "low cost healthcare" with a montly minimum still out of reach for those who need it most), its only going to get worse.

    please check out this video titled "bodega", its done in plain talk by two guys in the bronx.


    ..a reader in philly who found you via google alerts on "poverty".

  2. Thanks for writing. Community gardens are a great place to re-connect to many food issues that have been neglected or pushed aside. And you're right - in addition to having access to healthy food, cooking it is a link that connects people to food and to culture as well. I bet if you traveled up Broad Street 50 years ago there were people cooking dishes that were unique to Philadelphia. Are any of these dishes still around? Are there kids and young adults who are learning any of these recipes? Recipes are culture and they're being lost to franchised, marketed food.

  3. Access to real food should be considered a public health issue -- because it obviously is one. Here's an article about The Food Trust and efforts to bring supermarkets into neighborhoods that are so bereft of healthy food that they are considered "food deserts": Replenishing our food deserts: in tightly packed urban neighborhoods and isolated rural areas, fresh and healthy food is unavailable to many Americans. Lawmakers hope to remedy that.

    And here's another approach: the VeggieMobile brings fresh produce into neighborhoods without supermarkets.

    Thanks for raising my consciousness about this issue.

  4. Thanks for the great links! I agree that real food is a public health issue. A recent NY Times Op-Ed suggested Michael Pollan as a Secretary of Food, transforming the old Dept. of Agriculture to the present, giving policy makers the opportunity to address the connections between agriculture, food and public health.
    I think the idea is a good one.

  5. I completely agree. I work in urban Mpls/St. Paul and it is very difficult to find healthy food options (other than Subway). I also think that we need to do more education about the cost of fast food and how cooking at home is cheaper and healthier (provided people have the time and energy to do it).