Doesn’t it feel as though every time we walk into a grocery store, we are susceptible to purchasing the myriad concoctions the food industry develops that line the shelves, such as Coca Cola Zero and Twinkies? Isn’t it also the case that these types of food may be somewhat less expensive than the healthier options we seek? Does that mean that we should be buying white bread instead of wheat bread and soda in place of water?
In this way, my goal here is to discuss some of the most prominent and visible effects of our food system–namely, obesity and food insecurity, which are two concepts that undeniably have widespread impacts across the country. I will attempt to underscore the important conversation surrounding this complex, dynamic relationship and attempt to unravel the somewhat antithetical interconnectedness that the two possess, in order to assess and compare the two concepts within the parameters of our food system.
Why do some regions in the United States have incredibly high rates of obesity at the same time that there is a growing number of food-insecure people in those regions? How does obesity, defined by the CDC as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0 or higher,2 relate to food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA to be “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life?” Some suggest3 that food insecurity is a consequence of insufficient financial resources in the household, thus inhibiting those without adequate financial means from purchasing substantial, nutritious, and healthful foods to sustain their lives. In this way, the relationship between obesity and food insecurity is ultimately complex.
These maps illustrate obesity as a percent prevalence among males in 2001 (top) versus in 2011 (bottom). These data provide an example on just how drastically obesity rates have increased within the last several decades (IHME).
Is Soda the New Water? – The Vending Machine and the Food Landscape
When I go into the grocery store I notice that, on average, the price for a liter of Coca Cola is around $1, while a single bottle of Dasani water may be priced at almost $2. In other words, it seems as though, logically enough, the soda is actually cheaper and more accessible to people. Speaking of accessibility, the pictures below are the two vending machines on the first floor of Davis. Interestingly enough, the soda outnumbers the water by about a factor of 10, and crème pies, cinnamon buns, and donuts only remind me of the boxes of sweet treats that line the supermarket shelves in vast quantities.
In a way, these vending machines are not only metaphors of our industrialized food system, but they also represent a literal depiction of what we see as we enter the snack and drink aisles in the supermarket, although the “supermarket version” of these vending machines is inherently magnified. I’d like to point out that vending machines are not inherently ‘bad’, per se, but relevant to my discussion, they are closely related to general characteristics of our food system that lend themselves to the greater landscape of the unhealthy metabolic outcomes of food insecurity and obesity, on an individualized and regional basis.
The Breakdown of our Food System: Ability and Accessibility
Furthermore, the idea that food is accessible plays a major role in the obesity epidemic and the prevalence of food insecurity. Just as Jessica Mudry writes in “Nutrition” of how farm workers in Mississippi in the late 1960’s survived on one meal per day and that poor nutrition overall can be “localized” in certain regions across the country, it is apparent that access to necessary healthy foods proves to be a troubling task for a large number of people today.
For instance, what if you have only $1.25 to spend on food a day? I bet you’d be more likely to buy a bag of calorie-dense, ‘Famous Amos’ cookies from a vending machine rather than spending $1.25 on an organic apple. In this light, compared to an 80-calorie apple, the cookies seem like the more practical choice.
So, why is this? This question of “Why?” gets us closer to the root of the issue: while obesity may be the result of eating too much unhealthy food and following a rather sedentary lifestyle, food insecurity might be the result of not only eating inadequate quantities of nutritious foods, but also of only being able to eat the “wrong” foods. These types of foods, being rather inexpensive and accessible, may be those available in convenience stores or at gas stations, and may only provide ’empty’ calories and not enough nutrients. Overall, then, the idea is that obesity and food insecurity may be related by the ideas of ability and accessibility. How able are you to buy nutritious and healthy foods? What does food access look like in your community?
To further expand on this point, as seen in the documentary Food, Inc., the parents of the family of four interviewed were shown to eat McDonald’s for many of their dinners. With the challenge of supporting a family with limited financial resources, the healthier food options such as fresh produce were not necessarily the most able to be purchased by that family, and such is the case for thousands of families in this country.
Food Access and FAD’s
Lastly, this prevalent concept of food access ties into the idea of a “food availability deficit” (FAD) that was discussed in class. For example, the antithetic relationship between obesity and food insecurity, in many cases, relates back to a thought central to this discussion—that of the availability of healthy and financially-accessible foods.
In one way, lack of nutritious foods–such as the trend in purchasing the candies, muffins, and snacks in the grocery store that dominate over the more nutritious options, indicates one reason as to why obesity rates have risen so drastically over the last several decades. On the other hand, a chronic inability to purchase healthy foods because of both a lack of financial resources and a lower accessibility to nutritious foods is reflective of food insecurity. In this way, I believe that the idea of a food availability deficit may in fact help to interconnect the concepts of obesity and food insecurity. In this way, a further discussion is warranted regarding this idea, in order to illuminate the overarching reason as to why the two moieties of obesity and food insecurity are more closely related than we think.
- Defining Adult Overweight and Obesity. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/defining.html(Accessed November 28, 2018).
- Understanding Food Insecurity. Feeding America. https://hungerandhealth.feedingamerica.org/understand-food-insecurity/(Accessed November 28, 2018).
- Jessica Mudry, “Nutrition” in Georgina M. Montgomery and Mark A. Largent, A Companion to the History of American Science, John Wiley & Sons 2016, p. 199–212.
- Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). GBD Compare. Seattle, WA: IHME, University of Washington, 2015. Available from http://vizhub.healthdata.org/gbd-compare. (Accessed November 28, 2018).
- Food, Inc.
- Organic Gala Apples. Produce Geek. http://producegeek.com/organic-gala-apples/(Accessed November 28, 2018).
- Pink Donut. https://www.popsockets.com/products/pink-donut(Accessed November 28, 2018).