Understanding Classism and Food Insecurity in North America

Simply eating healthy is, unfortunately, not a black and white issue. As we grow as a nation to learn more about how important our health and nutrition is, you would think that people would simply stop going to Burger King (I'm going to switch things up and not use McDonald's as an example for once) and realize how harmful those foods are to our health and the environment in the short and (especially) long term.

So why are people still taking their children to fast-food restaurants and feeding them foods that are known links to obesity, type 2 diabetes, an abundance of chronic diseases and harming not only psychologically but also environmentally?

With growing knowledge and scientific studies linking health to diseases we now have many resources online and in our communities to help us stay healthy as we age. However, this knowledge is not present in many communities. In fact, healthy choices are somewhat discouraged through inaccessibility, high cost, food addictions and Classism.

It's easy to go to the Burger King, McDonald's, Dairy Queen or that other burger joint that are all within a 2 km radius of low income living.

Why would any child coming home from school go out of their way and pass by all of these delicious establishments to find a grocery store offering fruits and vegetables? I would argue that there is a lack of education telling this child what is right and wrong and why it's important we know what we're eating so that healthy choices become the norm and not something that is only eaten if you are higher educated. Plus, if you live in an American food desert (urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food), it's that much more difficult to understand what healthy eating is. Luckily, Michelle Obama is trying to change that for Americans - go girl.

It costs way less to buy a burger and fries meal than it is to buy a salad.

An entire meal at a fast-food restaurant consists of a burger, fries and drink for less than $10. Compare this to purchasing a chicken salad with a fruit and water and you're easily spending $15 - $20 with the possibility that you're hungry again in a few hours. Eating these high calorie low nutrient foods will keep you full longer and your wallet happier (in the short term). Darmon & Drewnowski (2007) found that:

Increases in food availability and ongoing marketing incentives to consume large quantities of low-cost energy-dense foods may be particularly damaging to the health of lower SES groups, for whom such foods represent a source of affordable calories."

Food addictions are real and all around us.

Sugar is highly addicting and is actually seen as a drug. Whether we realize how much sugar is probably in the foods we're eating, we don't actually realize the sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that is unnecessarily in foods to preserve and create addictions. HFCS is extremely cheap to manufacture and add to our foods in order to sustain shelf life. HFCS is also very addicting and is actually put in our foods intentionally so that we buy it again. Learning about label reading to look for HFCS is an important step into avoiding these food addictions that constantly make us buy things that take huge tolls on our health.

Low-income families are judged for their unhealthy choices.

Low-income living areas and those needing Food Banks are not given affordable healthy food options and, even if they were, wouldn't be able to afford it. Healthy eating is expensive and therefore not a priority. There also aren't as many reliable storage options which makes easily stored and long lasting foods even more desirable.

Those who can afford healthy living judge those that cannot, and it's not fair. As much as low-income communities need to be educated on the importance of healthy food options for a long and happy life, high-income communities need to use their knowledge on healthy food and purchasing privilege to donate, pressure policies in place making it hard to eat reasonably, and help those in need. Canada Facts (pg. 27) states that

Food banks provide last resort support to food insecure households and exist as a consequence of failed public policies. In March of 2009, almost 800,000 Canadians made use of food banks. Almost always, food insecurity is caused by lack of economic resources. Therefore, public policies that reduce poverty are the best means of reducing food insecurity."

Having the ability, knowledge and funds to eat healthy is an absolute privilege that is too easily ignored. Realize how lucky you are that you can afford healthy meals for your family so they won't have to deal with potentially deadly diseases in the future and struggle with having to turn their lives around when it's sometimes too late. And instead of judging those who struggle with lower-income and food choices, understand that there is no other option and that you can do so much to help. Your help and persistence will go a long way. Here is how people in power have helped those in need when it comes to nutrition (and I'm absolutely obsessed with it).

Here are some things you can do:

  1. Keep demand for healthy options high by purchasing local fruits and vegetables
  2. Educate your children (and maybe even yourself) on the importance of healthy living and cooking, preparing and shopping for healthy meals. The way we shape our children is fundamentally how our future will turn out.
  3. Support policies looking to raise minimum wage, help single mothers find reasonable work, provide affordable healthcare and childcare, and make healthy food affordable.

To contact your Elected Officials and Health Associations about the Social Determinants of Health in Canada, click here to find resources and support at the end of the document (page 60). I personally recommend visiting the Canadian Diabetes Association, as the issue is something very close to my heart and Type 2 Diabetes due to unhealthy eating and inactivity is only rising every year in North America.

This post is based on studies and articles written within Canada and America and does not reflect low-income communities around the world. Low-income communities around the world great differ from North America in their food choices and I hope to explore this more in person in the future.
Chelsey Labusch