The Income Gap Is Affecting Our Eating Habits And Health

Income Gap affects our food choicesBeing buried in debt and struggling to make ends meet every month can stress you out and have a negative impact on your overall health.  This type of stress is one thing that the wealthy never have to worry about.

But there are other ways in which the income gap between the rich and poor is affecting our health, and that was the subject of a recent article on MSN Money.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while American eating habits did improve between 1999 and 2010 the improvements were not reflected evenly across the board.

In fact, it appears that the inequality in eating habits between the wealthy and the poor is actually getting worse.

The study created a “healthy eating index” where higher scores indicate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and a low risk of obesity.

When the study began low income adults averaged scores that were four points lower than the score of wealthy adults.  A decade later, the wealthy scored an average of six points higher than their low income neighbors.

The income gap is making the healthy eating gap worse.  But why?

Price – Healthy food often costs more than less nutritious choices.  If you’re living from paycheck to paycheck and on a limited budget, you’re probably more likely to skip the organic vegetables and reach for the boxed mac and cheese instead.

Access to Healthy Alternatives – According to a report published by The Food Trust, low income communities are often unable to find any fresh food at all as supermarkets disappear from their neighborhoods.  Residents of these “food deserts” are forced to rely on convenience stores which offer fewer healthy options.

Lack of transportation is another factor cited in the report.  If the nearest supermarket is 20 miles away and you don’t have access to a car, you’re likely to rely more on the corner store which is full of unhealthy choices and at higher prices.

Education – Higher income generally means more highly-educated, and common sense will tell you that people who are more educated about the benefits of good eating habits and a healthy lifestyle will be more likely to adopt them.

So what’s the solution?

The problem of access to healthy food in low income communities is significant and would likely require some kind of government intervention.  Similarly, educating millions of people on the benefits of a healthy diet goes beyond the scope of a single blog.

However, there are ways around the first complaint about the high price of healthy food.

First of all, not all healthy food is expensive. There are plenty of healthy food choices that are quite inexpensive, including brown rice, whole wheat pasta, canned tuna, and dried lentils.  Some of these items may be unfamiliar at first but they are a healthy alternative that can fill bellies on the cheap.

Additionally, by planning your meals ahead you’ll be able to take advantage of coupons and sales to get the best price while also avoiding last minute calls to the pizzeria or Chinese restaurant.

What tips do you have for eating healthy on a budget?  What can we do to trip the food gap between rich and poor?

Image via SteFou!

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  1. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    Education is really the key to having healthy lifestyle! Nowadays, people poor or wealthy tend to go for healthy living—eating veggies and fruits, which is something to grateful for.

  2. Taylor Lee says:

    There is also, I might note, a growing concern that education really IS NOT enough to help poorer communities eat healthier. In part because of the higher cost of healthy food (which you mentioned) but also the time cost of cooking raw food (which tends to be healthier than processed stuff). Generally cooking from scratch is more arduous, takes longer, and requires more appliances and cooking utensils than quick processed food. So that $50 for a slow cooker and that extra hour or whatever after working two part time jobs is enough of a barrier that it prevents people from making healthy food for themselves and their families.

  3. Education is a big part. Cooking from scratch is super cheap but also super intimidating if you didn’t grow up doing it. It’s also something that can require an up front investment in cookware and ingredients – something that at-risk communities tend to have trouble getting.

    Access is also a huge part. I once lived deep in one of the bad parts of Brooklyn, NY. The closest grocery was 10 blocks away and it was disgusting AND expensive. Most people in the neighborhood ended up relying on the corner stores. Much easier to get to (no one in these communities owns a car) but high prices and not very much fresh food.

  4. Mike, I really enjoyed this post! I’m actually going to launch an “inexpensive meal plan” guide in the near future to help people eat healthy meals that don’t cost a fortune.

  5. I think lack of education is more at fault than cost of healthy food. When I was on a community health committee a couple of years ago that was one of the focus areas, educating people on how to shop and prepare healthy food inexpensively. What we found was that lots, probably most, of the people on food stamps had no idea how to cook or lacked utensils or even stoves if they lived in cheap motel rooms. One lady got $1500 a month in food stamps because she had 7 children and then ran out of food by the middle of the month. When the case worker analyzed her food purchases, it was all processed food, like premade frozen lasagna or similar. She also showed no interest in learning anything different, so apathy is a huge concern as well. If it were up to me, I’d make it mandatory that people who receive public assistance have to take classes on how to budget, shop, and cook. I don’t know that it would make a difference, but at least the knowledge would be there.

  6. Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income says:

    It’s definitely not cheaper in the long run. Poor eating costs much more for health bills later on in life. Sometimes we are just lazier as well. When I head home on Friday it is easier to stop and pick up a pizza than to fix something to eat. It takes time and training (education) to value your body, just like with saving and investing. It has to be a priority in life.

  7. It’s really hard to motivate yourself to spend an hour cooking after you’ve worked two jobs to keep a roof over your head. Also, trying to keep a long term view on life and how decisions you make now can affect you down the road is really, REALLY difficult when you’re in poverty. When life is only long slog and is going to stay that way until you die, it’s really tempting just to say “screw it, enjoy the little things” and eat what you want.

  8. Personally I think its a shame that low income neighborhoods are such food desserts. There is a big moment which I love which is neighborhood gardens in low income areas, so I think that goes along the line of education. I think once people are educated on how they can eat well on a lower budget, there will be more of a demand for better grocery stores. At least that’s my hope.

  9. You are right, not all healthy food is expensive. We eat relatively healthy and our food budget is only $300 a month for two people.

  10. It’s not all price that causes people to eat unhealthily. I’d argue that unprepared/raw foods can actually be cheaper than prepared/packaged stuff, at least sometimes. Fresh veggies are not expensive, it’s probably more lack of choice and education in how to prepare food that causes this in my opinion. Thanks for sharing this insight with us 🙂

  11. Healthy eating is expensive. There is no way around that. Eating a diet of canned tuna and brown rice is not the answer. But the answer requires both education and direct government intervention. Niether of those is going to happen, so America will stay poor, fat and unhealthy.

  12. I like the idea of community gardens in the summer, although I hear they’re not always frequented by those who would benefit most from them. An idea to combat this tendency would be to have existing children’s programs take the kids to the garden, let them help out there, and send them home with some produce and knowledge about nutrition.

    1. I know they aren’t frequented by those who would benefit the most. One of the reasons tend to be gardens away from where the people who need them. If they have to get to those places, but can’t, then they don’t work. Not all community gardens are located in the most effective places.