Is Healthy Food a Right or a Privilege?

Published May 12, 2020

By Irum Mahmood

Healthy food is something that is often associated with the words “organic,” “free range,” or “vegan” and phrases like “whole foods whole paycheck.” The implication is that your income has to be high enough to afford the high-priced goods at grocery stores like Whole Foods Market or Sprouts which specialize in natural and organic foods, or even at a local grocery store where the cost of fruits and vegetables could cost an arm and a leg, let alone the organic variety. In addition, these stores often do extensive research on where to open their stores, limiting their availability to the demographic they desire, one that will ensure maximum sales and profit. There is much evidence pointing to an outcome in which healthy food is available only to those who have high enough incomes to afford it.

Cost of Fruits and Vegetables

To correctly assess whether healthy food is a right or a privilege, we must first start at how fruits and vegetables are priced in local grocery stores and whether that is accommodated by the national median income of Americans today. According to a 2017 report conducted by the Economic Research Service, in which the costs for all healthy food including all forms of fruits and vegetables whether canned, fresh, or frozen, were calculated in accordance with the 2010 USDA recommendations on adequate fruit and vegetable intake for a normal adult. The USDA recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake per day are about 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day per adult. The findings of the report revealed the following: “An adult on a 2,000-calorie diet, we found, could satisfy the fruit-and-vegetable recommendations of the Guidelines at a cost of $2-$2.50 per day on average.”

So, for our purposes of assessing how much it would cost to eat the recommended portions of fruit and vegetables, it would cost around $900 per year. These calculations are only for one person. So, let’s say that for a four-person household, the cost would be around $3,650 per year for adequate fruit and vegetable intake. This does not count the USDA recommendations for healthy servings of the other categories that complete a wholesome American diet. For the average American, the median income recorded by the 2015 U.S. Census was $56,516 per year. So, a family with a median income would be paying about 6.4 percent of their annual income for just fruits and vegetables. What about those families with lower incomes than the median, or those that are at or below the poverty level?

Food Deserts – A Moral Crisis

There is yet another issue that exacerbates this problem — food accessibility. Food accessibility is not only the presence of healthy food options based on location, but also includes important factors like affordability and food preferences. Grocery stores and specialty health food stores typically do not open for business in areas where the income levels are less than the national average. Low-income areas which do not have a grocery store or supermarket or other source of healthy, affordable food one mile or less away is called a food desert.

The existence of food deserts in a wealthy nation like the U.S. is a moral crisis. Residents in food deserts often have to shop for food at gas stations, drugstores, liquor stores, or fast food restaurants. These areas are also called food swamps. Those who live in such areas do not have the option of eating healthy food.

So, is healthy food a right or a privilege? It should be a right but unfortunately, for now, it is very much a privilege, only for those who can afford it. There are little to no chance for low-income families to eat healthful foods because of corporate interests that have put profit before people, that care only about their bottom line. In a press release by the CDC in 2017, it was stated that previous data collected revealed that, “high cost, limited availability and access, and perceived lack of preparation time can be barriers to fruit and vegetable consumption”.

It is not surprising that residents living in underserved areas have poorer diets and that they are also more likely to have shorter life spans than those who have access to healthy foods. In a study by the USDA in 2016, around 12 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point. That is roughly 40 million people. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, food insecurity is highly associated with chronic disease and poor health. The impact of poor nutrition also plays a negative role in the physical and mental health of people. Overall, the rate of food insecurity is decreasing but remains a big issue for communities across the United States.

The Obama Administration, in 2011, got pledges from stores like Walgreens and Walmart to open in food deserts. By 2016, of the 656 stores that opened or were renovated, 434 have closed down due to lack of business. Complicating the issue is the reality that people who eat processed food and fast food with high amounts of sodium, sugar, and fat will not spontaneously switch to healthy food without being educated as to the benefits of healthy eating.

Taking Action

One thing is for certain: our nation’s food policies need to be reformed to address the needs of the people bypassed by healthy food providers. The USDA does provide nutrition assistance to groups underserved in our communities through their programs such as the WIC Works Resource System that brings women, infants, and children special supplemental nutrition; in addition, they provide Child Nutrition Assistance programs and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.

There are also organizations that we can support to help provide accessibility to healthy food through their programs. Amongst them are the large organization such as Feeding America and Meals
on Wheels. There are also newer organizations that have been effective in spreading the word about food deserts and inaccessibility in rural areas especially. These organizations are committed to providing access to healthy foods through individual donations and funding.

As Americans, we can start providing healthy foods to locals in our own communities. Starting at the community level can help tackle this issue one food desert at a time. Without the crucial availability of healthy foods, our communities cannot thrive and grow. Action steps that each and every one of us can take is to contribute to our local food banks, raise awareness about the nutritional needs in our communities, and starting a campaign for nutrition programs and classes to be offered locally that teach growing and foraging fruits and vegetables in our own backyards or starting a community garden. These steps can take communities forward, aiming to provide each and every human being with the foundations for living a more healthful life.

Irum MahmoodAuthor Irum Mahmood is a graduate of the Nutrition and Food BSc program at the California State University in Sacramento. She currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee and aspires to work as an advocate for healthy living within the Muslim community by using Sunnah-based nutrition plans for her clients that are tailored to their personal lifestyle;

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