America is getting bigger. While population is growing so is the average size of the waistbands on Americans’ jeans. The expansion in the number of overweight Americans is partly explained by the lack of ability by poor people to purchase the kind of affordable and nutritious food which would keep them healthy and slimmer. The food gap, as Winne refers to it, is the gap between the ability of the middle- and upper-classes to access high quality, nutritious food at an affordable price and with relative ease, while on the other side of the chasm there are millions of poor people who lack access and an ability to pay for the same high-quality food as their middle-class neighbors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a survey every year which estimates the number of food insecure (i.e., food insufficient) Americans, normally between 10 and 12 percent of the US population. Food insufficiency can loosely be defined as ‘regularly running out of food or regularly not knowing where your next meal will come from.’ As of 2011, fifteen percent of the U.S. population, approximately 46 million people, live in poverty. Poverty and the concomitant problem of being unable to secure adequate nutrition is nothing new for Americans. Inability to purchase nutritious food on a regular basis may have once been even more of a problem than it is now; enough of a problem that ensuring the next generation received adequate nutrition to meet dietary needs was once a matter of national security, as Wynne explains:
“ During World War II, a significant number of men were rejected for military service because they could not pass the standard physical exam. Much of the blame for the high rejection rate was ultimately laid at the feet of poor nutrition. That so many young men had such substandard diets that they were unfit for military service was a matter of national chagrin and a threat to national security. This was the impetus for the creation of the national meal program to feed malnourished children and thus to ensure that the nation’s future soldiers were fit to fight its battles.”
With one foot firmly in the “land of personal responsibility and the other in the land of structural inequality”, Wynn takes the reader on a journey to explain why low-income Americans have a more difficult time purchasing affordable nutritious food.
Big-box retailers and national grocery store chains have been moving out of the city and into the suburbs in recent years for numerous reasons. For starters, the growing cost of maintaining insurance in communities with above average levels of crime, plus the need to standardize the size and shape of stores in order to reduce the costs of operation, have driven many grocery stores to leave the cities and move to surrounding areas in order to increase profitability. Urban density makes it difficult for the immense 18-wheeler trucks, which distribution centers use to deliver food, to maneuver down small, car-cramped urban streets or inside of small, outdated loaded docks at older food stores. Suburban communities have the space to build the loading docks and parking lots that newer larger grocery stores need.
Ethnic grocery stores and corner stores, both of which often lack a wide selection of fresh produce and meats, move into poor neighborhoods to fulfill the function–providing food–that the newer grocery stores have sidestepped. Local residents who want a fuller selection of fruits, vegetable, and meats than their corner grocer can provide often have to take bus rides of an hour or more to and from a larger grocery store; then the shopper is limited to bringing home what they can carry on a city bus. To avoid a long and tiresome trip, poor people often end up eating the food at the corner stores on a regular basis. Eventually, a lack of dietary diversity on a consistent basis leads to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses.
Capitalism is working just as it is supposed to: grocery store chains move to where they can achieve the highest profits and serve the greatest number of people; smaller stores step in to fill the niche left by the vacating stores. But this system does not serve the bodily needs of all people, thus it is inefficiency in a way that has less to do with profits and more to do with morals, ethics, and values. How do you feed the poor people in the food deserts, the people that the food system has literally deserted?
Mark Wynn offers a number of responses to the question of how to make sure that the least among us have access to the same high-quality, nutritious, and affordable food as the middle- and upper-classes and those who possess a car. Most of what Wynn suggests can be reduced to the idea that improving our food system will require more public-private partnerships: local and federal government agencies coming to the table and working with local farmers and private chains to make it profitable for food to reach those who need it.
Jamila Akil is a senior editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil or email her at jamilathewriter-at-gmail-dot-com.