Tempering the Soapbox: Organic Food and Socio-Economics

Written by Valerie Lopez

Without dispute, purchasing locally and organically grown food comes with merits: it is good for the environment, good for farmers, and good for you. While dollar menus are on the rise, politically correct free-range meats and seasonal vegetables and also gaining popularity at the same time. But these divergent trends have something sinister beneath.

The University of Washington recently published a study that correlates socio-economic factors to the level of nutrition in a person’s diet. Better educated, higher income-earning individuals tend to have healthier diets than their lower educated, lower income-earning counterparts.

The study, entitled “Are Socio-economic Disparities in Diet Quality Explained By a Diet Cost?” sought to extend previous research on the subject of health and income. It argues that “socio-economic differences in nutrient intake can be substantially explained by the monetary cost of the diet.”

Previous studies have proven associations between low education and income levels and a higher risk of obesity, Type II diabetes, and coronary disease. On the other hand, “higher education and incomes were associated with diets that were lower in energy density (calories) with higher vitamin A, calcium, and potassium.”

Why? It comes down to the cost of food. Low nutrition, energy-dense and processed foods that have higher calorie and saturated fat levels are cheaper, thanks to the lower food prices wrought by industrial agriculture. Fresh, nutritious, and low energy-dense food, such as organically grown vegetables, are significantly more expensive.

Organic or “politically correct” food is a luxury of those who can afford it. For those whose budgets are constrained, a more expensive diet is harder to justify when pitted against the payments to a mortgage, health insurance bills, car payments, or rent. For families “with a low income or low level of educational attainment, food prices and limited budgets can constrain the purchase and consumption of nutritious foods.”

America’s socio-economic crisis manifests in national health. Poorer families endure more health complications because they can’t afford real, nutritious food. Inner cities have limited to no access to fresh produce. It’s either going hungry or becoming unhealthy—there is no higher ground.

Blanket prescriptions for healthy diets should be tempered and understood in light of this study. As the researchers remark, “public health initiatives to promote the consumption of shortfall nutrients and address disparities in nutrition should be mindful of the economic hierarchy food supply, in which calories are inexpensive but vitamins and minerals are costly.”

The divergent trends of nutrition intake reflect the nation’s increasing socio-economic gap.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a stunning piece on social equality and the health of the nation. In “Equality, a True Soul Food,” Kristof argues that a polarizing inequality gap can lead the poor to suffer from “physical ailments like heart disease, and social ailments like violent crime, mutual distrust, self-destructive behaviors and persistent poverty.”

The inequality gap in the nation manifests itself in national health. But the access to nutrition and good food is a universal human right, one that supersedes how much money a person makes.

Are there any solutions in place? Community and urban gardening are great alternatives. Community members can subscribe to grow food in a communal lot and get the benefit of accessing fresh and nutritious vegetables. The practice of growing food is also educational in a variety of ways: individuals learn where their food comes from, they learn how to grow food, and the healthy things to eat. More than that, it inspires a collaborative effort and a communal spirit—perhaps even bridging existing gaps.

While we hold the best intentions at heart when we espouse “organic” and “locally grown” food, we must also temper our passions and remember that choices aren’t so simple for everyone. Understanding socio-economic nuances will make us more informed, more creative, and hopefully more cooperative.

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