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The culture and politics of food.

Putting Income Inequality on the Table

food desert

A new study shows how the food gap is widening—and what can be done.

How does income inequality translate to the food that ends up on our dinner tables? For those on low-income budgets, the results look pretty disheartening according to a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Researchers found that the food gap is widening and that costs and access associated with healthier foods were the primary barriers. Such constraints lead to disproportionate health problems—those with lower incomes and educational levels statistically have higher rates of obesity. Frank Hu, one of the study’s co-authors said that the growing disparity is “disturbing.” And while food and diet education play an important role, most people generally know what is healthy, but not all are able to afford the better options.

The researchers utilized a scale called the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 which has 11 factors that measure the quality of our diets. On the whole, the U.S. scored 46.8 out of 110. While improvements were seen in the reduction of trans fat and sugary drinks, red meat intake hasn’t decreased and vegetable intake hasn’t increased.

Changing consumption habits is a challenge that is fraught with practical considerations as well as policy-making decisions. One of the most controversial is the soda tax which saw opposition from anti-tax groups and corporations such as Pepsi when a plan was proposed in New York. There have also been proposals to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to incentivize healthier foods. In Michigan, a program called Double Up is seeing success in its modified SNAP guidelines. Recipients collect an extra $10 when they spend their benefits at participating farmers markets or grocery stores. The extra money can then be applied to buy produce grown in Michigan. A study of the program has shown that over 200,000 families and 1,000 farmers have benefited, with 90 percent of the recipients eating more fruits and vegetables and 85 percent of the farmers bringing in more money because of the program. While Double Up is a positive example on a state-wide level, a diverse approach—from large-scale projects (like changing school lunches or re-considering the wage gap itself) to local initiatives (like community or urban gardens) will be needed if we want to close in on the food gap.

Photo by Eric Allix Rogers, licensed under Creative Commons.