Why Some People In America’s Salad Bowl Are Eating Junk Food


The nations salad bowl has a surprising and growing problem.

Californias Central Valley produces almost one-third of the nations domestically grown fresh produce. But many of the regions residents dont eat much fruit or vegetables a fact reflected in the regions heightened rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health concerns.

This problem, of course, isnt unique to the Central Valley few Americans todayeat as much fruit and vegetables as we should.

But the stark contrast between the food many of the farm-heavy regions residents are harvesting in the fields and what theyre eating in their homes prompted researchers at the University of California, Merced, to ask people what motivates their food purchases.

The answers, UC Merced public health communication professor Susana Ramirez told HuffPost, were surprising.

The where I can get it concern, at least in this community, is not as big of a concern as how can I pay for it, Ramirez said.

Researchers began the study thinking that Central Valley residents limited consumption of healthy food was likely because a significant portion of the population live in food deserts that are at least 10 miles from a large grocery store.

But researchers soon discovered that access to healthy foods might not be the problem at least not for the 79 Merced County residents they surveyed.The residents who, like much of the Central Valley, are predominantly Latino and mostly lower-income overwhelmingly said that they had ample access to fruits and vegetables in their neighborhoods, even if there were no traditional grocery stores.

Instead of supermarkets, the residents said fresh fruits and vegetables were available from farmer stands, farmers markets, mobile vendors and as gifts from neighbors.

If you live in that community, you learn to adapt,Ramirez said.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A worker harvests cantaloupes on a farm near Firebaugh, California. Central Valley provides much of the nation’s fresh produce, but many residents can’t afford to buy these foods.

But ingenuity can only go so far in the face of crippling poverty. The latest census data show25 percent of Merced County residents living below the poverty line.

According to the study, 65 percent of participants said fruits and vegetables were too expensive for them, even though more than 70 percent agreed that they had access to a large selection of healthy foods. The findings were in line with responses to the 2014 state health interview survey, the study noted.

Theyre saying that the [fresh, healthy]food is there, but they cant buy it though they would like to buy it, Ramirez said. The problem in this particular community is the tremendous level of unemployment and poverty and these factors cant be compensated for in other ways.

Of course, many staple fruits and vegetables arent particularly expensive. The U.S. Department of Agricultures thrifty food plan and other resources outline how affordable foods can be part of a balanced diet.

But the cost for some families goes beyond the sticker price, Ramirez explained. Members of many lower-income families work multiple jobs and dont have the time to shop without a car, then prepare foods, for example. And fresh foods spoil or might be shunned by children, risking wasting household resources.

Theyre saying that the [fresh, healthy] food is there, but they cant buy it though they would like to buy it.” University of California-Merced professor Susana Ramirez

These factors can push people toward convenience foods like packaged and processed grocery staples and fast-food items to keep their families fed.

If I can go to McDonalds and I can get a chicken sandwich for $1 and a salad for $6, Im going to have to think twice about choosing the healthy option, one respondent told researchers.

The study suggests that public health and food-access advocates focused on expanding supermarkets to so-called food deserts may be missing the point.

While some researchlinks the opening of a supermarket in a former food desert with healthier eating habits, other recent research contradicts that finding, suggesting a new supermarket had little impact on community members food purchases.

Ramirez suggested that affordability is a key component of efforts to increase access to healthy foods in underserved communities, particularly at a time when the governments Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could face cuts.

Ramirez pointed to examples like Double Up Food Bucks an initiative that allows customers using SNAP benefits to double their benefits when they buy fresh produce. Previous researchshows such programs increase fruit and vegetable consumption among participating families.

We dont have to reinvent the wheel, Ramirez said. We already have really successful assistance programs that put money in peoples pockets so they can buy produce, and thats what they do with it.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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