Nutrition for Low-Income Families

The average cost of a hamburger at McDonald’s ranges from around four to seven dollars. A large bag of baby carrots at Food For Less is three dollars. That McDonald’s burger can be eaten in a few minutes but a bag of carrots can be eaten over the course of several days. The issue in our world is not that there is a lack of healthy choices out there; the issue is that there is often a lack of proper judgement and education and thought that goes into making those choices.

Nutrition is a factor in our everyday lives that may seem miniscule. But can this factor play a negative role if disregarded? The answer is yes. With the nation’s obesity rates rising, the percentage of obese children and adolescents has increased to three times the percentage it was in the 1970s.[1] Whether we like it or not, nutrition is no longer a factor that can be avoided. This is especially true in low-income families, in which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are more prone to obesity.[2] Despite countless healthy food options available for families, people take their business elsewhere- somewhere that does not require cooking and cleaning- somewhere like a McDonald’s.

Fast food restaurants all over the country continuously prosper due to constant consumer demand. Although not the healthiest, many customers may argue that fast food is an affordable and easy option- an affordable and easy option that will not be disappearing anytime soon considering that for every one grocery store in the country, there are five fast food locations.[3]

The problem with parents of low-income families purchasing certain foods simply to keep everyone fed is that the quality of their choices is often poor. What many view as the cheaper option, unhealthy foods also happen to be more energy-dense. These foods- energy-rich starches, added sugars, vegetable fats- lack the nutritional value contained in choices such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.[4]

So why should the quality of the selected food matter if the price for unhealthy foods is significantly less than that for healthier foods? Well, the irony is that the unhealthy types of food are actually rarely the less expensive option. A family of four can eat a gourmet McDonald’s meal for $23 to $28 whereas a home prepared meal including dairy, vegetables, and protein only averages $14.[5] For families with little money to spare, it seems as though that $9-$14 savings could be significant.

Educational programs do possess the power to successfully implement healthier diets into the lives of low-income families.[6] For the people who are unaware or underestimate the extent to which an energy-rich diet (plus no proper home cooked meals) is detrimental to a healthy lifestyle, basic education is needed. In other situations, such as when people fail to realize the price differences between healthy versus unhealthy options, more detailed education can be given. Both of these education techniques can take place either through schools or through the help of the government which does support several federal programs regarding nutritional needs.[7] For example the Thrifty Food Plan, started by the United States Department of Agriculture, models a healthy and low-cost diet. Programs like this can identify cost effective food choices, offer diet improvement techniques, and introduce nutrient-rich items.[8]

According to Lucy Cooke from the University London College, familiarity to certain foods can positively affect children’s appetite for those foods.[9] If children begin to practice healthy eating habits from a young age (something adults can start to encourage more), it is possible for children to learn to enjoy and thus seek out various healthy foods rather than snack on an unhealthy cookie. Research has pointed out that the earlier children are exposed to various foods and the more foods associated with that exposure, the healthier their diet will ultimately be.[10]

When there is not a sufficient money flow coming into the household, parents work for longer periods of time and when they finally do come home, they often fail to adequately supply children with a proper meal.[11] Rather than let this go on, these parents can be directed toward options such as pre-cooked chicken and ready to eat salads in order to counteract unhealthy diets.[12] This advice can come from nutritionists, schools, or even a helpful friend/neighbor. It can quickly and easily yield changed behavior and positive results.

When people regularly eat out rather than eating a home cooked meal, it becomes a matter of habit- obviously not a healthy one. Only when people step back, reassess their diets and eating patterns, view cooking as a regularity and fast food/take out as an occasional option, do physical and financial health almost undoubtedly strengthen.[13] In this regard, the thought process behind eating healthy needs to change. Rather than something optional, healthy diets should be viewed as a something necessary.

Thinking back on our nation’s history, smoking decreased in popularity after anti-smoking ads were created.[14] Rather than a shift supported by only a few people, a change in culture might be necessary in order to achieve a healthier diet for everyone, especially for those with a limited amount of money to spend on that diet. Unhealthy food awareness can be achieved through basic advertisements that can come from federal funding, as some of the anti-smoking ads in the past were from, as well as funding from smaller campaign or pro nutritional groups/ organizations.

This nation needs to start focusing on a few things. The first is education about healthy choices, availability, and prices. The second is a complete social/cultural shift with attitudes toward a healthy lifestyle.

[1] Childhood Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 25, 2017. 1.

[2] Colleen Shaddox. Mix of Programs Helping Low-Income Families Build Healthy Eating Habits. Hartford Courant. January 26, 2017. 2.

[3] Brad Tuttle. News Flash: A Healthy Home-Cooked Meal Costs Less Than Fast Food. Time. September 26, 2011. 3.

[4] Adam Drewnowski and Petra Eichelsdoerfer. Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet? National Center for Biotechnology Information. November 2010. 2.

[5] Tuttle, A Healthy Home-Cooked Meal, 2.

[6] The Eating Habits of Low-Income Populations. SFGate. San Francisco. April 10, 2017.5.

[7] Drewnowski and Eichelsdoerfer.Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet? 2.

[8] Ibid, 1.

[9] Lucy Cooke. The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, volume 20. July 17, 2007. 1.

[10] Cooke, The importance of exposure for healthy eating, 1.

[11] Shaddox, Programs Helping Low-Income Families, 2.

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] Tuttle, A Healthy Home-Cooked Meal, 6.

[14] Ibid., 6