Think about it: If you could only eat what was available to you within walking distance from your home — and there were no grocery stores stocked with fresh foods nearby — what would your diet look like?
What would be in your cupboards?
Some two million households in the U.S. don’t own or have access to cars.
A report this week in JAMA explained that while Americans overall are eating healthier, the disparities have increased for those who earn less and are less educated.
Surveys done between 1999 and 2012 show the number of people eating a poor diet fell in the U.S. from around 56 percent to under 46 percent. In other words, we realized we needed to start eating better and began consuming more whole fruits, whole grains, nuts, and fish, while — believe it or not — we decreased our intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and 100 percent fruit juice.
But when researchers started sorting things out by race and income, it was a different story. Dietary improvements among black adults and Mexican-Americans were slight — and there were huge disparities based on income and education level. Adults with a college degree and beyond made the biggest improvement in their diets, while adults with only a high school diploma had the higher proportion of poor diets at 63 percent.
Access is a huge issue, Dr. Margot Denke, formerly with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, wrote in a corresponding editorial to the JAMA study. “If you have fruits and vegetables that are more expensive than other choices, then you have two layers of barriers — you have access and affordability.”
The new JAMA study isn’t the first to note the growing divide at the dinner table due to income and access.
Children who live one-tenth to one-fourth of a mile from a fast food restaurant are more likely to suffer from obesity.
Another study this spring from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed obesity rates among children in the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom are double the rates of those in higher income households.
Other studies have realized similar results.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found there are approximately two million households in the U.S. that don’t own or have access to cars and are located more than a mile from a supermarket. At the same time, low-income areas are more likely to be populated with convenience stores — versus grocery stores that overflow with fresh fruits and vegetables.
Supermarkets tend to offer families healthy food at a reasonable price, whereas convenience stores tend to offer more junk food and pre-packaged foods that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar, while providing no nutritional value.
A study of students in California, entitled, “Proximity of food retailers to schools and rates of overweight ninth grade students: an ecological study in California,” revealed that when a convenience store was within a 10-minute walking distance from a school, there were higher rates of overweight students compared to schools that did not have a convenience store so close.
The abundance of fast food restaurants may also play a role in obesity and junk food consumption among lower-income children. Another study, “Childhood body mass index: obesity and proximity to fast food restaurants,” was conducted by economics professor Jennifer Mellor, director of the Schroeder Center for Public Health at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Mellor and her colleagues found children who lived one-tenth to one-fourth of a mile from a fast food restaurant were more likely to suffer from obesity.
“Our study was the first we are aware of to show a positive correlation between obesity in school-aged children and physical proximity to fast food restaurants, while controlling for household socioeconomic status — an important influence on both obesity and proximity to restaurants,” Mellor told LifeZette.
And if fast food itself wasn’t enticing enough to kids, a joint study by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Arizona State University found that these eating establishments are 60 percent more likely to use displays for kids’ meal toys and cartoon characters, and include indoor playgrounds, in middle and low-income neighborhoods than in high-income neighborhoods.
So how bad is the problem?
In one low-income neighborhood of West Oakland, California, there are 30,000 residents and just one supermarket — not within walking distance for most of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. However, there are 36 convenience and liquor stores, according to an article published in the California Law Review.
The article notes there is also a fast-food restaurant on practically every corner of the neighborhood, and concludes this is not unique to West Oakland, but representative of the country’s low-income urban areas.
Things aren’t necessarily better in many rural areas. Some communities are too small to sustain an actual grocery store. Convenience stores are often the go-to when there’s no time or money or transportation for a major grocery run.
The findings, the researchers state, may inform discussions on emerging successes, areas for greater attention, and corresponding opportunities to improve the diets of American citizens.
Poor eating habits and little-to-no exercise have been blamed for the skyrocketing obesity rates in the U.S., along with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and different types of cancers. “In the U.S., health issues related to diet are estimated to account for more than 650,000 deaths per year and 14 percent of all disability-adjusted life-years lost,” Modern Healthcare reported.