The restaurants located in areas with high concentrations of poverty are less likely to offer healthy options, according to a new study conducted by Kansas State University researchers. The data indicates that it’s more difficult for low-income Americans to make healthy choices because there are fewer options available to them.
Researchers analyzed the menus from restaurants within a half mile of 13 public housing developments and four residential neighborhoods in the Kansas City area. There were a similar mix of restaurants near both areas, mostly fast food places. But they found that about three quarters of the entrées offered near public housing developments were unhealthy — defined as containing too many calories and fats, and not enough whole grains and vegetables.
“There is the thought that people are unhealthy because they make poor choices, and that can certainly be true. But there is a huge influence from the environment that people are in that goes beyond individual responsibility,” Katie Heinrich, the lead researcher and a Kansas State University assistant professor of kinesiology, explained. “Here we saw that 75 percent of the time it’s going to be very easy to pick an unhealthy entree from a menu because those unhealthy entrees make up the majority of a menu.”
Previous research has also confirmed that access to healthy food is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. Lower-income Americans tend to live more than a mile away from the nearest grocery store, and often lack the transportation they need to get there. Many people living in poverty have the easiest access to processed and high caloric food, so they choose to use their limited resources on that — and the fast food industry wants to keep it that way. Fast food restaurants often specifically target their advertising to low-income communities of color.
That’s helped contribute to the fact that the obesity epidemic disproportionately impacts the people living in poverty. It’s one of the multiple ways that economic inequality takes a toll on Americans’ health — and contributes to the fact that poor Americans’ life expectancy is declining. Rather than addressing these structural issues, however, multiple Republican lawmakers have proposed punitive measures to improve the nutritional choices among the low-income Americans who rely on government safety net programs, like blocking people on food stamps from buying junk food.
“I think that there is a delicate balance between trying to make healthy food choices and having your environment facilitate healthy choices,” Heinrich pointed out. “But if we don’t set up environments where the majority of choices can potentially be healthy, it becomes much more likely that people are going to make unhealthy choices.”