Is Universal Access to Good, Healthy Food Really a Problem?

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Everyone seems to agree that getting healthier food to low-income families is important, but a new survey shows that they don't really need it.

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How can we change the way America eats? If there is one thing most people agree on, it's that we need to make healthy food more accessible and affordable to low-income families.

Or do we? A new survey from Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters program challenges a piece of the conventional wisdom. The poll of 1,500 families revealed that most low-income families are satisfied with the availability of good food. Seventy-seven percent of urban families were satisfied with their options, versus 69 percent of rural families. The greater obstacles to healthy meals are planning skills, time and, yes, price.

According to the survey:

  • Families with a stay-at-home mom or an unemployed parent are far more likely to prepare healthy from-scratch meals. An at-home parent makes dinner from scratch 4.4 times per week versus 3.6 for families where the adult(s) are employed full time. Homemakers, the unemployed, and disabled were more likely to agree that that cooking healthy meals was a realistic goal than those that worked full time.
  • Families that regularly budget and plan for meals before shopping -- using a written grocery list, for example -- are the same families who eat healthy, balanced or made-from-scratch dinners most days of the week. Families that always or often plan are significantly more likely to provide healthy meals five or more times a week. However, overall, 35 percent and 55 percent of survey respondents, respectively, don't regularly use written grocery lists or plan meals before going to the store.
  • Price is a factor. One in four families report choosing less healthy foods often or always because of price. But, the report smartly notes that this can be overcome by educating families about the benefits of canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, which cost a fraction of what fresh ones will run you and don't rot in the crisper drawer. While 81 percent of families said that fresh produce was extremely healthy, just 32 percent of parents rated frozen fruits and vegetables as extremely healthy and only 12 percent said that canned ones offered great nutritional benefits.

The data reflects what my husband, Brent Cunningham, and I saw while reporting for six months in Huntington, West Virginia. Among the families we followed, the very poorest was the one most likely to cook healthy meals at home. But it required intense planning and basic cooking skills. The families least likely to eat well were the ones who, frankly, didn't have to. They had enough money to swing by Burger King for dinner on the way home instead of cooking family meals and eating leftovers. (See my recent post, "Fast Food's Dirty Little Secret.") They shopped impulsively, instead of methodically, at the grocery store, which meant their carts were filled with frozen pizzas, chips, and snacks.

It's fashionable to blame a lack of access to good food for America's lousy eating habits. It may be easier to plunk down a new Walmart in the inner city. (And the schemes may also help cash-starved politicians generate corporate campaign contributions.) But the Cooking Matters survey is more evidence that helping families to eat better is a lot more complicated.

Image: beemanja/Shutterstock.

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Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, West Virginia. Learn more at www.janeblack.net.

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