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Access to Healthy Foods

We all know what it means to "eat right." So why do so many people turn to fast food outlets and "junk" food? Food security - having adequate access to nutritious things to eat - is a complex issue interconnected with place, economics, and social policies.

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In the developing world, the issue typically is getting enough food; in the industrialized world, it's more often a matter of getting the right food. Ironically, high-calorie food is cheap and plentiful in poor urban communities (due to the low cost of corporate food production subsidized by tax dollars), while low-calorie, nutrient-rich food is harder to come by. This leads to a counterintuitive situation in which poverty fosters obesity rather than starvation.

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Key Factors


Many low-income neighborhoods lack access to a full-service supermarket. These so-called "food deserts" are dominated by liquor, fast food, and convenience stores, where produce is not only scarce but comparatively expensive and poor quality. Residents of these areas are more likely to rely on public transportation, further compounding the problem of access.

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Many people today, particularly heads of households, work long hours, at multiple jobs or commute to make ends meet. Parents who spend long hours working and commuting have limited time and energy to shop and prepare nutritious meals for themselves and their families. Pre-made meals are fast, easy and affordable.

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Often, children and teens get their own dinners. Fast food is not only more readily available, the industry bombards youth with billions of dollars of advertising on television, in the neighborhood, and at school. It's no surprise, then, that many kids will make this choice when left to their own devices.

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Simply put, "junk" food costs less than healthy food - for producers as well as consumers. The abundance of cheap additives like corn syrup (a product of government-subsidized corporate agribusiness) drives production and profit for manufacturers.

For consumers, University of Washington researchers found that the cost to obtain 1,000 calories from nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables was $18.16, compared to only $1.76 to obtain the same number of calories from energy-rich, highly processed foods. Moreover, the same foods purchased by suburban residents in large supermarkets cost 3% to 37% more for urban dwellers.

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Consequences and Social Policies

Food insecurity not only impacts nutrition, it also affects learning, brain development, behavior, immune resistance and in turn, job prospects and life chances over the long term. A poor diet also leads to increased risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and even cancer. Eating right isn't just a matter of making good choices and having self-discipline. Although it's important to educate people about nutrition and diet, our living conditions, socioeconomic status and other outside factors affect the options available to us and our ability to stay healthy.

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Policies that would help improve food security include encouraging investment in poor communities; improving public transportation; developing community gardens, farmers' markets and partnerships between local, sustainable growers and low-income neighborhoods; limiting advertising and the availability of junk food in schools; guaranteeing a living wage; and eliminating sugar and corn subsidies to large manufacturers in favor of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

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Source: Backgrounders from the Unnatural Causes Health Equity Database (.pdf) from www.unnaturalcauses.org

Related reading

Buying In to Nutritious Eating from the Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine

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