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According to the United Nations, food is a fundamental human right, yet malnutrition and food insecurity remain rampant around the world — and the U.S. is no exception. It may seem unfathomable in a country that’s so self-assured, but accessing healthy food is challenging for many Americans, especially people of color and those living in low-income neighborhoods.
According to researchers, the most notable barriers to healthy foods are time and money. Healthy foods and fresh ingredients are typically more expensive than convenience foods, such as salty snacks and microwavable meals. In addition, purchasing ingredients and preparing healthy food can be time-consuming. Thus, Americans who are working several jobs in order to make ends meet may be unable to fit meal preparation into their busy schedules.
The grocery gap also factors into the equation. For many Americans, the ability to access grocery stores that sell healthy food is a non-issue. But for an increasing number of U.S. families, access to healthy food is limited, and that simple fact can lead to a variety of health problems. The Food Trust reports that more than 39 million Americans are affected by the “grocery gap,” which contributes to levels of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases that are higher than average.
By failing to meet the dietary needs of the American family, U.S. officials and policymakers are also essentially failing in the realm of preventative healthcare. That’s because what we consume has a primary influence on our health. So what can be done to improve the health of American families and close the grocery gap?
Food Deserts and the Grocery Gap
A nutritious diet is one that consists primarily of whole grains, lean meats, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, those healthful food items often come with a hefty price tag, especially when compared to high-calorie substitutes that have little nutritional value. Low-income Americans often choose to stretch their food budget by purchasing cheaper, energy-dense foods, such as those that contain added sugars, starches, and vegetable fats. Those individuals may also be unclear about their nutritional needs, eschewing foods that are high in antinutrients, including cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, because they falsely believe that those foods are harmful. They can be for some people, but not everyone.
In areas with a prominent grocery gap, also known as a food desert, however, a family’s diet may not be attributed to choice at all. Instead, those in low-income neighborhoods may be forced to travel long distances to access healthy food at a supermarket or full-service grocery store. Further, transportation to grocery stores that house a wide variety of food can be problematic for those without a reliable car or who live in areas with inadequate public transit options.
Thus, millions of low-income Americans source the bulk of their food from unhealthy food retailers, including fast food restaurants and convenience stores, reports the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). And people of color are disproportionately affected by the grocery gap: In fact, UCS data indicates that, “the negative effects of greater access to unhealthy food were significantly larger than the national average in counties with higher-than-average percentages of residents of color.”
The Importance of Family Meals
Low income Americans may also be lacking when it comes to another crucial aspect of healthy eating — having dinner as a family. The Washington Post claims that sitting down for a family dinner is the most important thing you can do with your kids. Having a regularly scheduled family dinner time, where electronic devices are pushed to the wayside, can boost communication and vocabulary skills among younger children. And the importance of family mealtime for teenagers is striking, in regards to both physical and mental health: Teens who eat regular family dinners report lower levels of adulthood obesity, as well as decreased rates of depression and suicidal thoughts.
What’s more, strong early childhood development and familial togetherness are two key social determinants of health. Nursing professionals believe that improving social determinants promotes healthy living and effectively helps to safeguard vulnerable populations, including those living at or below the poverty line. Among low-income families, family dinners can help bridge the opportunity gap by providing emotional stability alongside healthy, robust conversation.
The Connection Between Good Food and Quality Healthcare
But young families are far from the only Americans who stand to benefit from improved access to healthy food. Older Americans require regular access to nutrient-dense foods that may better allow them to age in a healthy manner. For example, certain foods have been shown to improve joint health and ease the symptoms of arthritis. Fresh cherry juice may reduce inflammatory levels in osteoarthritis patients, and sulforaphane, a chemical found in green, leafy vegetables, has the ability to block joint inflammation levels.
When coupled with affordable, comprehensive healthcare, access to good food is one of the best ways to improve the health of all family members, from birth through old age. While low-income Americans are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the availability of nutritious foods, it’s not impossible to balance nutrition with affordability. Vulnerable populations should make an effort to seek out healthy food, make time for regular family dinners, and address nutrition concerns with healthcare providers, in order to maintain a higher quality of life.
What Does a Lack of Access to Good Food Mean for the Health of the American Family? was originally published in Healthcare in America on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.