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Food Quality and Social Status: The American Caste System

Class distinction comes in just about any size, shape and color imaginable. Sometimes status division is blatant and glaringly unjust, while in other instances has been subtle and even devious. No matter what form it takes, social stratification has always been part of the human experience – and today is no different.

In the US we have access to more food than any society in the history of mankind. Restaurants and grocery stores are commonplace and farmers markets and co-ops are becoming more and more popular. Food is everywhere in this country – people can eat what they want, when they want to, and wherever they feel like it. The choices are almost unlimited! But America has a serious obesity problem. How? In a nation so full of healthy choices and diet options what is causing so many people to choose unhealthy, high caloric, processed foods on such a massive scale?

The answer is obvious after only a few minutes spent walking around a grocery store. The healthiest foods – like fruits and veggies, fish, lean meats and whole grains – are far more expensive than refined and processed foods. Choosing a healthy diet is not a cheap choice for someone to make, especially if they are trying to provide food for multiple mouths. The lowest cost diets are the least healthy. The food budgets of many American families are simply insufficient to obtain an adequate, balanced diet.

The term, “food insecurity” is used to describe households that sometimes run out of money to buy more food, or run out of food before they can get more money. Food insecurity in America is rampant in southern states and in big cities like New York. It is also highest amongst households run by single mothers. Families like these are faced with a choice when they go to the grocery store: Buy one or two nights worth of nutrient-dense, healthy food? Or buy two week’s worth of calorie-dense, processed foods that will last longer and fill you up faster? … It becomes a cost/benefit analysis, and nutrient-dense, healthy diets cost more time and money per calorie than foods with added-sugars and fats. More often than not, the price of healthy food creates a barrier for adopting a healthy diet.

But food price is not the only factor contributing to this social stratification – living environment and access to food are also important facets of the problem. Most supermarkets, grocery stores, farmers markets, and co-ops tend to cluster around more affluent neighborhoods, making access to food and healthy food choices easy for people of higher socioeconomic status. “Food deserts” are regions (usually inhabited by the impoverished) where access to food stores and markets is intensely limited. Physical proximity to healthy, fresh food has an extremely heavy influence on diet. It has been proven that easy access to grocery stores increases people’s intake of fruits and veggies – but when the closest source of food is a gas station or corner store, healthy options are limited and diets take a turn for the worst.

Furthermore, poorer people are less likely to own vehicles, which makes getting to the grocery or market a much more difficult endeavor (especially in food deserts). When this is the case, people are much more likely to purchase non-fresh, canned or processed foods that will last longer. Food deserts in America are growing at an alarming rate, and almost without exception affect regions that are low-income and impoverished.

This phenomenon is a downward spiral that holds healthy food choices out of reach for anyone below a certain socioeconomic bracket, and highlights the glaring border between the American “Have’s” and “Have-Not’s. The manifestations of this are physical – the wealthier you are the more access to healthy food and fitness you have and the healthier you will look, while those who lack money and opportunity are forced into unhealthy lifestyles that create obesity. This visually divides the poor from the rich. It used to be that corpulence and obesity signified wealth and prosperity, but the tables have turned in the last century – now, excess weight is an indicator that someone doesn’t have enough capital to make responsible, healthy choices.

Of course, income and prosperity aren’t the only factors that dictate a person’s health. A lot of Americans live healthy lifestyles on shoestring budgets, it isn’t impossible, it just takes a lot of time and thought and money management to do so. Conversely, wealthy people can make very unhealthy choices as well. The concept of food is changing in America and across the world. For millennia food has been a resource to be enjoyed socially and shared communally with your family, friends and neighbors; it was finite and seasonal and it was a very natural part of life on Earth. But today, food is seen as a sacrosanct right – we eat as much and whatever, whenever we feel like and we can control our calorie and our vitamin intake with numeric precision. Our perception of food and its place in our lives has become wholly unnatural.

What can be done to resolve this extremely complex problem? A lot – but none of it can be achieved by individuals alone. If the US decided to spread the health, and make sure that access to healthy food was a human right, it would require nothing short of a revolution. Under our current system wealthy farmers sell extremely low quality food to poor people, and poor farmers sell organic wholesome food to the rich. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it would take a powerful social movement and a lot of community action to change it – but, wilder goals have been achieved.


Will Brendza
Will Brendza is a freelance journalist and aimless adventurer based out of the Rocky Mountains, a fearless student of science and a keen outdoorsman. After having witnessed firsthand the environmental abominations taking place both abroad and at home in the US, he resolved to spread the knowledge and drive for global sustainability. When he isn't writing or reading a good book, he can usually be found exploring foreign countries, savoring craft breweries or somewhere deep within the wilderness of Colorado."

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