Friday, October 28, 2011

Starving for Fat: a look at the nutritional debate in the US

Contributed by Katie Powell 

While countries such as Denmark are imposing a “fat tax,” which consumers will face with the purchase of foods containing saturated fats, American companies such as Yum! Brand are lobbying to make fast food accessible with SNAP (food stamps). While some believe this is a huge step backwards for current nutrition efforts, others feel it is a necessary step towards food accessibility. Is access to unhealthy food among a population that is already at a statistically higher risk for diet-related diseases truly a liberating force? 

According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “17 Million, nearly one in four children in the U.S., are food insecure." A recent study conducted by the nonprofit Wholesome Wave found that while food insecurity is rampant, obesity is plaguing approximately 2/3 of the US population. While these two facts seem to contradict one another (can a large percentage of our population really be hungry and obese?), this is the current reality in the United States. In order to examine this debate one must ask who benefits from SNAP usage at fast food restaurants. Studies by Wholesome Wave have shown that $5 of SNAP can generate $9.20 in total economic activity when spent in the conventional global food distribution system. It seems Yum! Brand and other companies could considerably benefit from this policy change. Though policy has a profound effect on how all Americans eat, what other factors contribute to food choices among Americans, especially SNAP recipients? Some of these factors include time, culture, and expense.

It has become conventional wisdom that healthy food is more expensive than alternative choices, such as fast food. It seems price, or assumed price, of food has come to be the greatest factor in food choices. Mark Bittman of the New York Times refutes this idea by giving an example of a typical order for a family of four at McDonalds. If a family orders two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas, the cost would be $28. However, this same family of four could serve an at-home meal of a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14. While cost seems to be the first assumption people make about healthy food choices, it is clear that it is practical to eat healthy at home. Therefore, it cannot simply be price that influences food choices. Another factor that must be considered is access. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket. Seeing as many of these households have no access to a car, it becomes difficult if not impossible to purchase healthy food.  

Many of these barriers to healthy eating are beginning to be addressed by initiatives across the United States. The USDA began the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, to help bring access to fresh and healthy foods to communities in food deserts. The Let’s Move Campaign, started by First Lady Michelle Obama, addresses children’s health. Many nonprofits, including Catalyst Miami, have brought "double-value coupon programs" to farmers markets. This means that when a SNAP recipient uses food stamps at a participating farmers markets, their purchase will be doubled. In other words, if they spend $10 worth of SNAP they will receive $10 in coupons for further purchases. The amount you can double varies from market to market, but the goal is the same: to make healthier food more accessible and affordable and increase sales for local farmers. With the launch of the new Catalyst Miami website, we hope to include an interactive map that will provide dates, times and locations of farmers markets in Miami with double-value coupon programs. During my time at Catalyst Miami, I will be working to create other outreach efforts to inform our community about these healthy food opportunities.


  1. I think the issue is not "access", the real issue is, whether super wealthy or poor, people just don't cook much at home. And when they do "cook", it is rarely true cooking from scratch. As long as you're willing to pay corporations to fully or partially cook for you, you don't have too much concern for the ingredients they use. Look at the people with big bags of real food at farmers' markets; they are the people that cook. Get people to appreciate food enough to really cook at home and you will have solved the problem. Some of the best ingredients in town can be found in the edgiest parts of town, farmers' markets in Overtown and Liberty City, yet these places are routinely described as "food deserts". You can easily buy the best ingredients available in town--100% pastured raw milk, 100% pastured meat, picked that morning organic vegetables/fruit--and prepare the ingredients at home for about the same as a fast food meal. The battle is getting people back into the kitchen and away from the gov-subsidized, unhealthy ingredients used by corporations to make edible "consumer products" that many people think are food.

    (I define poor in Miami as not enough money for both a car or air conditioning.)

    By the way, there's a list of food sources at