Poverty, Nutrition, and Obesity

October 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

I recently found myself engaged in a rather heated discussion with a friend who was lamenting the quality of food that she can buy with her relatively meager paycheck.  She was justifiably upset that the best calorie value  for her money was off-brand macaroni and cheese which she could buy for $1/box and which would feed her for four meals.

Shepherd Market by Mr. T In DC

Her experience is far from unique.  In many urban locations, there isn’t any kind of a grocery store for residents to shop at; corner stores and fast food are the only options.  Even where there is good access to a wide selection of foods, the fact is that, as my friend knows all too well, healthy food is simply more expensive than lower-quality but more calorically dense options.

It seems contradictory that we so often hear lamentations of the obesity epidemic in the United States (see the statistics available from obesity.org) followed on the heels of reports about increasing rates of malnutrition (see Hunger in the U.S.).  Aren’t these things mutually exclusive?  They are, of course, not.  When the goal is to get as many calories as possible on as few dollars as possible, the sacrifice that often has to be made is nutrition.  The end result is that people who come from “food insecure households” may well be overweight and malnourished at the same time.

There is no clear-cut answer to this social problem.  Some of the problem is education, and it is here that we see the inextricable links between poverty, education, health, and opportunity.  My friend has the benefit of a good education; part of the reason she is so upset at her situation is that she knows that the affordable choices available to her are also ones that are detrimental to her overall health.  In other cases, however, the individuals in this situation are suffering the double whammy of ignorance of the healthy choices to make plus the lack of healthy choices available to them.  Availability of healthy food, regardless of cost, is another problem; even if a person wants to make good nutritional choices, if there are no stores offering those choices to them, they are left with little choice but to buy less-healthy foods.  The daily-life constraints placed upon the poor are also a factor.  Imagine that you are a single parent working multiple jobs in order to support your family.  You may simply not have time to cook nutritional meals for them and opt instead for fast food.

If the problem of poverty and nutrition is so complex, the solution must also be multi-faceted.  In a sense, nutrition serves as a lens into the more general experience of the urban poor in America.


  1. This article is so right on target. I was married at 17 and we raised a family on a lower middle class income. My husband and I did not have formal education after high school, we just worked. Unfortunately with 2 growing hungry boys it was not always cost effective to feed them small amounts of quality food. Now all 4 of us battle with weight issues. I eventually had to have a gastric bypass to help mine, and now must eat those more costly foods, I have no choice and because of that we actually lost our home because I had to choose between a house payment or better quality food. It’s very sad.

  2. common sense is the thing to have, one should learn how to cook and prepare food, just the basics will do, but when you want to have everything you see on TV, that is usually fastfoods, yes it does cost. Parents give their children what they like, instead, give them what they need. Have you forgot who is the parent and who is the Child, the parent is suppose to make choices for them, dried beans and peas have great nutritional value. easly cooked, You made house payment, to Ronald McDonald

    • rjoyner… Just how rude can you be? Sensitivity aside (because you probably just wouldn’t get it) Try sometime, to live on a VERY fixed budget. Common sense # 1 will tell you that CARBS are what you will find in your starchy dried beans and peas. Starch = carbs = fat! #2 With your various misspelled words, poor grammar and sad little misuse of capitalization, maybe you are the ignorant one? #3 Sometimes the basics are all you have to choose from. Some real parents’ only choice is to feed the children what they can, as opposed to what they’d much rather give them. Have you failed to notice our current economic status? WE’RE IN A RECESSION AND HAVE BEEN FOR A WHILE! The next time you decide to get on here and try to spread your repulsive ignorance… put down your keyboard and GO TAKE A HIKE!

      • I would just like to say, from a nutritional standpoint, that dried beans are much better for you than ANY fastfood whatsoever. Beans are great sources of vitamins and minerals as well as protein. Perhaps you should validate your statements before calling others ignorant. Beans are excellent sources of: copper, calcium, folate, pottasium, molybdenum, manganese, and iron. A half cup of kidney beans provides 5.7 grams of fiber, of which 2.9 grams are soluble. That’s more fiber offered than those pathetic “fiber bars” offer, and a half a cup of dried beans from a bag cannot cost more than 10 cents, compared to the $3 for a box of fiber bars. The fiber bars have added nutrients, but they are not as bioavailable for your body to absorb. And get off the carbs are bad train… that in itself is just ignorant. Overindulging in processed regined carbohydrates is horrible for you. But if they are derived from whole grains etc. they are a valuable source of nutrition

  3. When a poor person has to work multiple jobs and take care of a family, finding time to prepare food is difficult. There is a certain necessity to find food that can be prepared quickly. I think this adds another dimension that makes the problem more complex. We all must sleep at some time. We cannot spend all our time working and cooking.

    A useful website for this issue might be http://www.helpinghope.org/contact_5.html

  4. This is a subject that really gets under my skin. I have been a single Mom with a growing boy, living in poverty. I worked two jobs and sometimes the choices I had to make about what I could afford were VERY difficult. So I understand and have “been there.” But I do not agree with the author of this blog AT ALL. Whether I am poor in an urban area or a rural one, if I have to feed myself and/or a family, then I have a responsibility to work that out. I/ we lived on rice and kidney beans for a VERY LONG TIME because I knew it was nutritious and very inexpensive. I would add onion and canned tomatoes, or sometimes tomato soup. It wasn’t gourmet, but it gave my son the nutrients he needed to grow and learn -and that’s what counted. And wonder of wonders, we never got fat eating what we needed to survive, but we never ate too much either.

    I happened to live rurally for a portion of this time, and I found out about some fields that local growers would let people glean, when they were done with their harvest. I had no car for a while – I had to save for one – so I found someone who would take me and we would pick whatever was available. I would use and/or freeze whatever I could and give the rest away to other people. I also found out when government surplus supplies were given out, and I thankfully accepted anything I was given – WHETHER I LIKED IT OR NOT. Who wouldn’t prefer filet mignon to endless peanut butter sandwiches on “day-old” wheat bread, but until I could afford to buy something else- I ate what I could afford.

    We, in the country, have got to stop the insanity of blaming everyone else for our choices. We have to start learning to “do hard things” like living within our means – even if those means are teeny tiny.

    Instead of this new sociological nonsense of needing a Whole Foods dropped next door to me so that I can make good food choices; perhaps we should try something a little more basic – like me being responsible for me. I do believe education about both nutrition and budgeting are imperative pieces to this puzzle; and I think that mandatory training in both of these should be required for ANYONE who receives food stamps. But even if we all had Master’s degrees in economics and nutrition, that would never address the more serious human issues of self control, ingratitude, discontent, etc. that seem to be rife in our society. No one can MAKE me pass up the McDonald’s drive thru, if I am determined to go there- that’s a choice I need to be willing to make because it is the better choice to make.

    In a country where, literally, the poorest among us are richer than 65% of the rest of the entire world, we really need to shut our mouths about this stuff. Or maybe we should imagine having this same discussion in front of a few thousand Indian children in a slum where eating out of the refuse on the ground is having a good day. Would we be chagrinned enough to toughen up a little or even be mildly grateful?

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