The Socio-Economics of Our Food Supply

Originally published April, 2014 at

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that you’re a single parent. You’ve got $10 to feed three kids tonight, and you’ve only got 45 minutes to take care of that before you have to run out the door to get to your second job, the one that pays barely above minimum wage. What do you do?

Finding something to eat isn’t necessarily a challenge these days. Finding something to eat with nutritional value, particularly in impoverished areas around America, can be an entirely different matter altogether.


Food insecurity creates an underlying stress that affects nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population. Just over five percent of Americans are considered to have “very low food security,” meaning that food consumption and eating habits of one or more household members was affected negatively because of the financial or accessibility issues. Economic and physical access to “nutritious and safe” food not only promotes general health and well-being, it also helps drive the agricultural market, which is good for the economy.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, in 2011, more than 54 percent of the food insecure households used one or more of the larger Federal food and nutrition assistance programs in the month prior to the survey. While urban regions like the New York City and Los Angeles metropolitan areas are clearly home to some of the wealthiest people in the world, the struggling masses in these same places are left to fend for themselves, figuratively grabbing whatever scraps they can to survive. These areas are heavily populated with convenience stores and fast food restaurants that are notable for cheaper, albeit unhealthy options, and smaller ‘’bodega” type corner stores that can’t afford the quality fruits and vegetables needed for a well-rounded diet.

“Food deserts,” as defined by the USDA, are “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” The USDA judges food access by a one mile radius in urban area but expands that radius to 10 miles in more rural places. There are an estimated 23.5 million people living in American food deserts and more than half of those are considered low income.

“The cost of fresh fruits and vegetables in inner cities is markedly higher than in suburban and rural areas,” explains public health expert Lisa Byrne, MPH, and author of Replenish. “The access is also markedly limited, as fresh produce is not as readily available at food stores throughout many inner city areas. Families with lower incomes also tend to source their food from smaller food markets versus larger food chains in inner cities and these small markets have less inventory of fresh produce and higher costs associated with the produce they do have.”

“Perhaps, though, the most crucial element of the conversation is stress,” Byrne explains. “Living in poverty is stressful. There are chronic stressors families who live in or at the poverty level have that simply do not exist for those who live with higher economic means. Stress is directly linked to obesity. Metabolic, physiological, and biochemical pathways are compromised when an individual lives under chronic stress.”

Poor nutrition and health choices are not mutually exclusive to those living in poverty, of course. One of the spoils of success is the ability to get what you want whenever you want it. There was a time when your status in society was easily measured in your waistline. If you were overweight, that meant that you had food to eat. For certain segments of society, this remains true. One study looked into what kind of impact having health insurance had on lifestyle. It found that those who had health insurance were more likely to be on the larger side of the Body Mass Index scale, indicating a “moral hazard” that reinforces the argument that those with insurance may be less likely to take proper care of themselves since the can rely on the insurance to pay for their medical care if and when they get ill.

Not everyone in a more advantageous position acts so cavalierly with his or her own health, of course. For decades, City Harvest has collected unused products from restaurants around New York City, to the tune of 465 million pounds annually, and delivered them to the hungry and homeless. As the only organization of its kind in New York City, City Harvest has developed and maintained strict conditionson what types of food it will accept such as “prepared foods chilled to 40° F that have not been served or placed on a buffet,” and “dairy products stored at 40°F to expiration date,” among other conditions.

Former Trader Joe’s CEO Doug Rauch has a plan that could potentially be a step in the direction of providing a lifeline to communities with food security issues, but it isn’t without some controversy. Next month, Rauch plans to finally open The Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass. The idea is to take food that has ‘crept’ past its expiration date, which is set somewhat arbitrarily, and offer it for sale at a discounted price, in neighborhoods where nutritional options are lacking.

“Most of what we’ll be selling will be fruits and vegetables, freshly prepared product, stuff that’s really not brand-driven,” Rauch said inan interview with NPR last September. “This is about trying to tackle a very large social challenge we have that is going to create a health care tsunami in costs if we don’t do something about it.”

Some have suggested that Rauch’s Daily Table is another case of the wealthy looking for ways to exploit the underprivileged.

“I think that the issue here really is how you talk about it and how you educate,” Rauch has responded. “For instance, food banks for years have done this. Without naming names, one of the leading, best regarded brands in the large national food industry, they basically recover the food within their stores, cook it up and put it out on their hot trays the next day and offer that at fair, full prices. That’s the stuff that we’re going to be talking about.”

Dietary decisions made in the U.S. are based on more than just nutritional value. Programs to feed the poor are intertwined with politically charged budget discussions on state and federal levels. The most recently offered Republican proposal suggested a nearly $$140 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, successor to the food stamp program, over the next 10 years. Nearly 70 percent of those who utilize SNAP are families with children. The cuts made to these programs, as well as the constant debate that plays out in the media, hang over these families as they worry about where their meals are going to come from. A lack of food security lends itself to a disregard for the nutritional awareness that is needed to develop a balanced diet. Food deserts, in both urban and remote areas, limit the choices that even the most informed could possibly make. Tell a starving man that the Whopper and fries he’s about to eat is no good for him and see if he cares.

Then there are those who, despite the information available, simply don’t know how to eat in a healthy way. A lifetime of poor choices cannot be undone overnight. The education that Rauch calls for is crucial to turning these patterns around. The resulting health issues from a poor diet end up impacting the costs of health care for everyone and we’ve all heard plenty about health care in this country over the last few years now, haven’t we?

Back to the problem posed in the first paragraph above: With the clock ticking, the odds are likely that you’ll choose to feed your kids with the food that is probably closest. Maybe it isn’t the meal that you want to put in their stomachs, but all things considered, it is probably the best that you can do. After all, it’s time to get to work.


originally appeared April 17, 2014 on


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