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George Boardman: There’s a good reason why poor people eat so much junk food

George Boardman

Observations from the center stripe: Local edition

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Poor people in America are likely to have more health problems than the rest of us, and one of the main culprits is the food they eat — or don’t eat.

We’ve evolved from the old days when the poor died in the streets. Now, they’re more likely to die of heart disease, cancer or other ailments brought on by obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes because of the junk food they eat.

I suspect most of the poor realize a steady diet of junk food is not good for them, but this stuff has a big advantage over healthier fare — it’s food they can afford. If you’re facing hunger because you missed a paycheck or the food stamps ran out before the end of the month, this is not a small consideration.

Just look at what you could buy recently for $6 or less:

Burger King offered a $6 King Box with a burger, fries, Coke and two cookies.

McDonald’s countered with a mix and match of two of the following items for $5: Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, McNuggets or a Quarter Pounder with cheese.

Wendy’s also had a $5 deal that included a Junior Bacon Cheese Burger, four nuggets, fries and a drink.

KFC low-balled the rest of them with a pound of food for $3. This apparently includes chicken, potatoes, and gravy — lots of gravy.

Health experts point their fingers at the fast-food companies for enticing people to eat this stuff. A recent report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut concluded that fast food companies spent $11 billion on TV ads in 2017, most of it on the unhealthiest of their offerings — sugary food, fast food, candy and unhealthy snacks.

The study alleges that this advertising is aimed primarily at black and Hispanic teens, with blacks twice as likely as whites to see the ads. Dr. Christopher Bolling, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on obesity, argues that racial targeting comes down to a common denominator: poverty.

Bolling said children of lower socio-economic status are more likely to live in food deserts, where healthy foods are largely inaccessible and there are more fast food restaurants per capita.

All poor people tend to get caught in the same trap. “It is really tough when the cheapest way to get adequate calories is through junk food,” said Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health. “This is not about personal health when there’s no availability there.”

Take the $6 that Burger King will cost you and see what kind of a healthy meal you put together at one of our local grocery stores. You can barely buy a decent sandwich for that kind of money, and I’m not talking about organic food, which is more expensive than the pesticide-drenched, hormone-laden food most of us eat. Those same grocery stores also sell plenty of junk food.

Fast food may be poison for your well being, but many of the healthier alternatives are too pricey for even people who aren’t technically poor. One of newest trends in the restaurant industry is the $15 lunch salad at upscale chains like Chop’t, Sweetgreen and Just Salad. This trend is so hot that Sweetgreen recently completed a $200 million round of funding that values the company at $1 billion.

All have stated their long-term goal is to democratize healthy eating by making their products available at a lower price and implementing better food education at schools.

“We always want to make sure we’re really accessible to anyone who wants our items,” said Janani Lee, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad, noting that the chain strives to always offer at least 10 items under $10.

I suppose that’s a start, but it doesn’t get their offerings into the Burger King range. And I suspect those guys who funded Sweetgreen are not going to encourage this trend because the real payoff is selling high margin meals to people who can afford them, as evidenced by the premium prices commanded by organic food and farm-to-table fare. Just listen to Julia Turshen, a cookbook author and food activist who wants to make good food available to everybody:

“A quick stroll through the 1.4 million Instagram posts marked #farmtotable are primarily of white people with gardens or at nice restaurants. When we say ‘farm-to-table,’ the term belongs to wealthy white people with access to tables laden with abundant produce.”

That was certainly the case with the discontinued Nevada City Farm-to-Table banquets, multi-course offerings of the best organic food to be found in this area. Dinner tickets for the fortunate 120 people were pricey even before you ordered the wine. However, leftovers were donated to the homeless on at least one occasion.

So how do we make healthy food available to the poorest among us? That would be a good topic to explore at Sierra Harvest’s Sustainable Food and Farm Conference convening Thursday at Nevada Union High School. Over 600 farmers, foodies and homesteaders are expected to attend the four-day event to honor “national heroes from the sustainable food movement,” according to a press release.

But a scan of the workshops being offered shows an emphasis on such topics as maximizing output from your garden, breeding and selling heritage chickens, selling wholesale and direct to retail, and direct market success. In other words, maximizing profits.

That doesn’t look like a sustainable path to healthy eating for the poor.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct the name of the restaurant chain Sweetgreen.


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