Are Food Deserts to Blame for America's Poor Eating Habits? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader argues that the question “is a lot deeper than just food deserts and availability of food”:

Marc Ambinder’s May 2010 cover story

People need to know the basics of nutrition. A friend of mine did nutrition classes on a pro-bono basis for inner-city folks and most of them didn’t even know you can spend $6 on a couple of pounds of beans, a ham hock, and some Jiffy cornbread mix and can get a few meals out of it. Compare that to something you rip out of a box and eat. Empty calories, lack of protein, lack of fiber, and lack of complex carbohydrates dominate the diets of a lot of inner-city and rural poor people. Next thing you know, you have an epidemic of obesity, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes.

My parents grew up in the Great Depression, and even though food was scarce, they still got better nutrition and ate healthier than poor people do today.

But the following reader also points a finger at well-off Americans:

One of the assumptions of food desert theory is that higher income people eat a healthier diet than poorer people. From my personal experience living and traveling throughout the rural western U.S., I would argue that is not the case. 

The diet in the rural West is often abysmal regardless of income. Vegetables are shunned even down to the measly pieces of lettuce and tomato placed on a hamburger bun. I’ve often seen people remove them at the table and set them aside as though they were poisonous. Mac and cheese is considered a vegetable and there is nothing unusual about someone ordering a steak or a burger or fried chicken with mac and cheese and fries as their sides. Get into someone’s expensive Dodge Ram truck and you will see the floor covered with large empty bags of Doritos and empty soda cans (almost never diet).  

The result is that if you are modestly overweight, you feel absolutely svelte in comparison to friends and neighbors, very many of whom are obese. One friend who hosts events that involve preparing lunches and dinners and is slightly adventurous in her food choices—and has a Sam’s Club 50 miles away—posts “Danger” signs on goat cheese appetizers and “Safe Cheese” signs on the colby cheese.  It’s a joke, but it’s also reality.  

As for purchasing healthy food, rural supermarkets are all too often only one step above bodegas as far as the availability of fresh fruits and veggies goes. I’ve frequently seen moldy cabbages and rotten fruit when searching for a healthy choice. Money is one part of the equation, but culture is another. It’s easy for upper-middle class foodies to believe that it’s only members of minority groups or the poor who eat badly. Out here, white folks also eat badly regardless of income.

A reader who volunteers at Seattle’s largest food bank also points to culture:

Lately there have been many articles about why Asian American students do better academically than other minority students. Of course family, work ethics and expectations have a lot to do with it, but so does nutrition. Look at the diet of Asian Americans compared to other groups: Asians eat far more vegetables and fish, foods that are good for the brain, and much less processed food, sugar, red meat and carbs.