Food and Social Justice in the United States

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Regardless of your history or socioeconomic status, you most likely believe in some form of the “American dream,” the idea that anyone in the US, regardless of race, social class, or geography, can find and build upon opportunities to create a successful and rewarding life. But what about food, and how does it factor into our social justice system?

On closer examination, we find some significant differences in the levels of access to healthy, nourishing food. These differences are often connected to location and economic status While the media covers such high-profile current issues as discrimination, low-income jobs, and a dwindling middle class, there’s little discussion regarding the limited access to healthy food that many in the United States experience every day.

Could solving our food crises also lift up the lower class and create an environment where hunger and poverty don’t exist? This is a big topic, and there are certainly no easy answers or quick fixes. But let’s dive in using the lens of Dynamic Eating Psychology.

Food Inequality

Many of us take for granted our access to well stocked grocery chains, health food stores, farm-to-table restaurants and farmers’ markets. But what if you lived in a community without these luxuries? 48 million Americans currently live with some form of food insecurity, meaning they do not have consistent access to enough adequate nutrition to maintain a healthy life.

Almost half of those people live in food deserts, defined as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”

Nearly half of those living in food deserts are also considered low income. In urban food deserts, there is access to food, but mostly in the form of low quality options such as fast food and small convenience stores with processed food like chips, cookies, processed meats and boxed food. While fast food and processed food is cheap, most low income families suffer from food insecurity, meaning they aren’t able to access enough nutritionally adequate and safe food to have a healthy, active life.

At the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we believe how we eat is how we live. If you are primarily consuming processed foods and fast food hamburgers, you will be deficient in life energy. It will be difficult to achieve, or even dream of, a new way of life because biophysical functions will be altered. Consistent consumption of poor quality foods containing high amounts of sodium, fats and sugars results in poor brain development, increased depression and anxiety, increased obesity, and increased risk of disease. Urban areas also promote a more sedentary lifestyle with fewer safe outdoor parks and activities and less access to health clubs or gyms.

If this at-risk population had access to more healthy food, would their life be better? From a Mind Body Nutrition perspective, we believe so. You cannot work, grow and thrive without nourishment. Of course, there’s no overnight solution, but if 15% of our population is suffering from some form of hunger, then our collective psyche is experiencing the effects of this crisis. We all need to turn a little more attention to this national and global issue.

Food and Economics

Food is a substance we all need every day. It’s big business and a multibillion dollar industry. Growing concern that we won’t be able to feed our population has created big agriculture and the increased use of genetically modified (GMO) foods that are resistant to pesticides and can withstand more environmental destructions.

According to Michael Pollan, food activist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the majority of food in the US seems to be several re-arrangements of corn. Corn is either used as a food ingredient, like sweeteners, syrups, juices and candy, or used as feed for our animal food supply. Nearly 30% of the US landmass is used for corn production.

While big agriculture has done amazing things in the past 30 years to increase our per acre food yield, is it possible that our food supply has become too homogenized and we aren’t offering enough diversity to nourish an entire population?

The selection of processed foods, meats and cereals is mind boggling, but is it necessary? Is this about food supply, or about profits and creating a marketplace for overly processed, nutrient deficient food that wasn’t in our food chain 40 years ago? And some argue that our body is not able to digest the amount of processed foods, pesticides, chemicals and artificial ingredients at the levels we are consuming.

Grassroots Change

In recent years, there’s a growing movement of health seekers and experts who are making the link between GMOs, chemical additives and processed foods, and our increasing health issues. Many people are removing these foods from their diets and eating more whole, organic and minimally processed foods.

They claim that health issues and autoimmune disorders that doctors and medications could not cure disappear. Advocates such as Food Babe and Green America argue that the proliferation of these chemical and GMO ingredients into our food supply is making humans sick, and depleting our environment.

This is a controversial topic for sure, but the current grassroots movement will have a trickle down effect for the lower income population. The Internet and social media make it easier for consumers to voice their concerns and demand change. Recently one of the largest iconic cereal brands, Cheerios, was forced to change to non-GMO ingredients because of demands from customers.

Chipotle now only uses non-GMO ingredients and responsibly raised meats. While big food argues that switching to organic and non-GMO is expensive, Chipotle saw a 14% rise in their stock when they announced this change. Socially responsible food companies recognize this shift and are voluntarily labeling their food and offering healthier options.

The demand for healthier, more transparent food is also driving down costs and increasing availability for these organic, non-GMO and minimally processed foods. In the US, organic food sales have nearly doubled since 2005, with increased availability at big retailers such as Costco and Walmart. This trend means that as costs go down and demand rises, more families will have access to better quality food.

In addition to these industry changes, there are many national and local grassroots efforts working to reduce food waste and increase healthy food access, especially in the food deserts. While it seems there isn’t enough food to go around, the numbers show a different story. 133 billion pounds of the US food supply went uneaten or wasted last year, which cost about $1 billion to dispose.

There are many national and local efforts to reduce this waste and repurpose the food to food deserts and areas of need. A big source of food waste is grocery stores and restaurants, where there’s perfectly edible food that cannot be sold. Enter Food Rescues: these are local, usually nonprofit organizations that create a network of volunteers and trucks to transport unsold food to area food banks.

And often the food includes fresh produce and higher quality ingredients which are so desperately needed. Many grocery stores and markets are taking advantage of new government incentives to locate in more urban, low income areas and food deserts.

Not only does this create more healthy food options for those who need it, but it creates jobs and builds a sense of community. A neighborhood can be completely revitalized with the operation of one grocery store.

Personal Responsibility

At the Institute, we believe one way to overcome your own challenges with food and body is to turn your attention outward and help those in need, even in a small way. While it’s true that hunger and food equality is a big problem, each individual has the ability to affect change in their community. Here’s some things you can do to help the movement.

-Vote with your wallet and purchase the healthiest food you can afford
-Purchase food from local sources, such as farmers’ markets, when possible, or consider planting a small planter garden
-Reduce food waste by consciously shopping for food and using leftovers
-Reduce consumption of industrialized meats, which contribute greatly to environmental and health problems
-Donate unused food to food banks and shelters
-Shop Responsibly! Research socially and environmentally conscious companies and purchase from them when possible
-Volunteer your time or donate funds to local food banks or rescues

Let’s do more by being awake to this problem and offering support to those around us. Healthy food and nourishment should be a right for all humanity. Check out our Eating Psychology Coaching Certification and learn the tools to help your community have better health!

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