In season two of blue-collar classic sit-com “Roseanne,” Roseanne decides she needs to go on a diet. The kids groan while her husband Dan insists that food is the one necessity item they can make into a luxury. His argument: Why eat bland when you’re too poor to spice up the rest of your life?
I heard the same argument growing up in a home where John Goodman could easily have been substituted by my father. It’s an argument that touches on a bigger idea: fat is a class issue.
A 2001 study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service stated that low-income households have less access to reasonably priced, high quality food than other households. This is hardly surprising since there are 30 percent fewer supermarkets in low-income areas than high-income areas.
Food is almost always more expensive at inner-city and rural supermarkets, where options are also fewer; and while government statistics show that 77 percent of food stamps are spent at supermarkets, they also show that the other 23 percent are spent at convenience stores and mini-marts in geographic areas where supermarkets are not real options. Thus, if low-income households have limited access to high-quality foods, what are they actually eating?
If the coupon page in the Sunday paper is any indication, the answer is overwhelmingly junk: preservative-laden, salt-heavy, sugar-laced junk. There are a lot of reasons to eat junk: junk saves money, junk saves time and junk is addictive.
Junk food is a medley of substitutes and preservatives: lab-products that reduce the cost of production and extend products’ shelf lives. High-fructose corn syrup is an example of a cost-cutting substitute that has consistently been linked with obesity, while burgeoning scientific evidence suggests preservatives like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and sodium nitrate also help pack on the pounds. Fresh foods don’t have substitutes and preservatives, so fresh foods often cost more because they risk spoiling. The added cost means fresh foods are not a real option for everyone.
Fresh foods also require preparation, and preparation requires time and energy. Looking for, commuting to and being at work takes considerable amounts of time and energy, especially for those who don’t own cars. Furthermore, trying to access resources like low-income health care is difficult and time-consuming. Budget constraints create more than financial constraints, which begs the question where all the time and energy for proper meal planning and exercise is supposed to come from.
Consistently eating junk food also paves the way for food addiction, a fact established by Yale University’s obesity research department. Like most drugs, junk food releases opiods, the body’s natural painkiller, and opiods’ feel-good friend is dopamine. Eventually, the body builds a tolerance and experiences withdrawal without regular junk food intake. What was once a pleasure-inducing amount of food becomes a normalizing amount of food, and this addictive effect is exacerbated with addictive additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG). Being forced on a junk food diet (which can be just as much a product of cafeterias or soup kitchens as it can be the home) forces the body to crave a junk food diet. When only 20 percent of alcoholics recover, it’s unrealistic to expect junk food addicts to fare much better – especially when they have to make food choices every day.
Thin is valued in our country because we strongly associate it with class and status. Being thin visually suggests things like being educated and healthy and having time for working out and preparing meals. With the wealth of weight loss products and gimmicks, thin is also perceived as something almost anyone with enough money can buy. (Of course, if that were actually true, folks like Oprah would have “thin” on lock-down.)
People who are overweight suffer many of the same stigmas as people who are poor: they are considered lazy, ignorant, unmotivated, etc. These stereotypes isolate both obesity and poverty as consequences of the individual (if only she/he hadn’t done this, if only she/he would do that), rather than the results of systemic problems. It is no coincidence that the poorest states are also the heaviest, and to say just a few better individual choices would fix everything is oversimplifying the problem.
There is no quick fix for obesity or poverty. Fat is not indigenous to working class people, but when evaluating why America is overweight, who has access to what resources needs to be considered.Contact Micco Caporale.