Tl;dr we have to start talking about poverty

As I reach the end of this semester, I’m reflecting on how my views on creating a nourishing, sustainable, and just food system have been enriched by my education inside and outside the classroom.

What has been clear to me for some time is that the food environment, as determined by industry and government, is not compatible with my vision for public health. We produce and market way too much of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones, the cost structure constrains nutritious choices even further, and we pollute and waste far too much at all levels of food production and consumption.

All of this is still true, and demands to be addressed by the private, public, and non-profit sectors. But, lately I’ve been increasingly confronted by another major crisis that is also at the root of our public health nutrition problems. I am talking about poverty, friends.

I wrote about my Public Health Nutrition class at the beginning of the semester here. I believe I wrote in that post that I had been waiting for this class during my time as an undegrad thus far with much anticipation, mostly because its title is common to that of the particular career field I plan to enter. I expected to know already a lot of the material about the public health nutrition programs run by the government (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the school lunch program) and I did, but what was remarkable was how much the course focused on poverty as a broader issue to frame the public health issues. For example, one of our big assignments was to read and write a paper on one of four books about poverty, none of them focusing especially on nutrition. We also had a guest lecturer come in and talk to us purely about the housing crisis in town next to the university.

When you think about it, it’s easy to see how poverty and the low affordability of things like housing and health insurance are incredibly critical to understanding food insecurity and diet-related disease. But not enough people are thinking about it. Before taking this class, I recognized the connection, but still lamented the flaws of the food environment far more than the miserable extent of poverty.

One of the concepts that the poverty assignment dealt with was flexible versus inflexible expenses. For instance, every month, people have to pay the fixed amount of their rent, utilities, and other bills. Those are the inflexible expenses. They they go to buy their food, and, depending on how much money they have left over, may have to compromise on nutritious foods in order to buy whatever will satisfy them for the least money. For low-income households, government programs like SNAP fill the gap to some extent but don’t typically provide enough to reasonably afford what public health advocates would prescribe as a nutritious diet, and are really only available to the poorest of the poor.

The thing is, food justice and access is so important, and so are welfare programs when they work, but it is equally important for people to be able to rehabilitate and support themselves financially and afford all of this nutritious food to which they may or may not have convenient access, on top of their fixed expenses. If all of those things sound like different names for the same problem, it’s because they are. Too many people are living in poverty (just watch this video about the horrifying income distribution in this country) for the welfare system to sustain itself.

And another thing: everyone demands that food be really cheap, but the externalities of cheap food cost way more in the long run than investing in better quality, nutritious food to begin with (as I lamented in this post). 

The way I see it now, there are two broad, intimidating goals to strive toward in this struggle:

  • Increase the capacity of the social safety net to support people in need with resources to achieve food security
  • Reduce the need for the social safety net by improving equality of opportunity for low-income and disenfranchised populations AND mandating a living wage

I definitely do not have all the answers with regard to how to reach those goals, and really don’t know how to do it in a politically acceptable way (although I do have some thoughts which I may elaborate on in future posts, and always appreciate comments).

Tl;dr: You can’t adequately address food insecurity or the diet-related disease epidemic without addressing poverty.