Although the United States is considered one of the richest countries in the world the access to healthy food of good quality has been a significant issue. That problem affects especially elderly and low-income families. I live in Norwalk in Fairfield County and this is also an issue in my area despite the fact that Fairfield County is one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. (fccfoundation.com). The access to organic foods is even more complicated as the pricing and supply demand dynamics present serious constraints for development in this area of food production. These complex issues are affecting large number of local residents. In this essay I will explore the underlying issues and try to evaluate potential solutions.
The price of healthy food is one of the issues affecting families with insufficient income. According to Fairfield County Community Foundation the average meal in America cost $2.52 in 2011 and in Fairfield County that cost was $3.17. This disparity causes certain Fairfield County residents to allocate larger portion of their budget to food and because of this they are often unable to afford foods that have healthier characteristics (fruits and vegetable). When looking at the food cost production one wonders why there are still problems with access to good food in our area. Over the years the food production output in the US has been steadily growing. The use of fertilizers, more improved equipment, consolidation of cultivated land and modern methods of managing food production contributed to the growth of food supply. At the same time on average prices have been falling down substantially. Once the prices of food fell the percentage of money spent in average family budget also fell.
The fall of food prices have also its downsides. To make the food available at low prices farmers and food manufacturers have to use fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields of production from the land they cultivate. Those harmful chemicals accumulate in the fruits and vegetables which we then eat. The levels of the chemicals that can be present in the food we eat are regulated by the governmental agencies and are considered not harmful, but it is safe to assume that those chemicals do no contribute to our health and their levels are frequently exceeded and poisonous.
The agricultural food producers engage in a balancing act. On one hand they use modern chemicals that make the fruits and vegetables grow faster and bigger at the same protecting them from pests and sickness. On the other hand those chemicals are polluting the environment and are traceable in the produce and ultimately in our bodies. Some of those chemicals are suspected to be contributing to a serious health hazard and even sickness.
The seemingly cheap food comes with hidden costs. “All of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap” (Pollan).
There were many instances of food pollution that were not caught on time. Most recently in the US there was a countrywide spinach withdrawal emergency and before the problem was eradicated number of people ended up in hospital with serious health condition. These issues do not happen very frequently and by and large the food safety processes are working properly and the governmental agencies fulfill its function in inspecting the food supply efficiently. I think it was important to point out however that the agricultural industry food safety record is not foolproof and the industry has its flaws that come to light from time to time. We need to be aware of this fact and be mindful of potential food contamination outbreaks.
Although the advancements in agriculture have on average decreased the food prices, the food still makes up a large portion of the family budget for certain social groups due to the fact that the salaries and incomes have stagnated in the past decades. This is especially true for jobs that fall in a category of low-skilled labor that sometimes pay just a minimum wage. The main reason for the income stagnation for the manual labor jobs was the globalization of the economies, fall of communism and technological advances including widespread use of internet and its corresponding tools. Labor intensive industries have gradually moved overseas and those jobs moved with them too. As a result the companies were reducing the US jobs and those remaining saw their income growth stagnating.
The other negative aspect of modern agricultural production is the devastating effect it has on the environment. The chemicals used by the farmers are seeping into the ground polluting the streams, rivers and lakes. The water supply is very frequently polluted to the level at which it can no longer be used. The substances used to protect the agricultural output destroy the natural habitat of many species and disrupt their existence. One such example is how bees have been negatively affected. The bee population has been decreasing dramatically and in large numbers over the years, which was mainly attributed to the agricultural industry’s use of chemicals.
The issues I briefly brought up so far that affect the local communities are the cost of food and the problems related to producing the healthy foods (detrimental effects). Let us explore now the lack of access to healthy foods for low-income families. The issue is bi-dimensional in nature. I already described issue related to lack of income for healthy foods and the reason why the food takes up a large portion of low-income family’s budget. Since those families are hindered by insufficient incomes they can rarely afford a car and live in the areas where many other low income families live. Because they cannot drive their car they have a hard time accessing stores that offer selection of healthy items such as fresh fruits and vegetable. In the areas where they live frequently there no stores within walking distance that provide healthier foods. The problem they are faced with is twofold. One is the lack of car and the second is the lack of stores with proper assortment of healthy foods within walking distance. Below are two maps accessed from Fairfield County Community Foundation illustrating that issue in Fairfield County.
The lack of access to healthy food is a country wide phenomenon called food deserts which was most recently highlighted by the First Lady Michelle Obama. She started an awareness campaign to bring the issue to the spotlight and rally the support to alleviate it. The food deserts are the areas where access to healthy foods is limited or nonexistent. The implications of food deserts are quite severe. The residents living in those areas are prone to have unhealthy eating habits due to lack of access to nutritious and well balanced foods. This in turn causes the health issues representing itself mainly in tendencies to obesity and health complications related to it.
As I already indicated earlier the healthy, affordable food is predominantly not readily available in low-income urban neighborhoods than in wealthier, non-minority suburbs. “Small markets are ubiquitous in urban neighborhoods and they can contribute to unhealthy eating habits and health disparities. Many low-income families must rely on corner stores for their routine shopping needs” (Martin).
I think it is important to differentiate between healthy foods and organic foods. The healthy foods are the foods that are recommended to be included in the daily dietary habits called ‘nutrition plate’ (formerly ‘food pyramid’) by surgeon general and the department of agriculture. Those healthy foods such as fruits and vegetable are predominantly produced through conventional farming methods. The organic foods again such as fruits and vegetables are defined by United States Department of Agriculture by organic regulations that “define organic production as an ecological production system that fosters cycling of resources, promotes ecological balance, and conserves biodiversity” (CSREES).
I feel there are ways to mitigate the existing unfavorable situation. Local communities should support the farmers in the vicinity and encourage them to provide their foods via farmers’ market within locations with healthy food shortages. Supporting local food production and local farmers have dual benefits. The farmers will be able to produce more and have additional outlet for sales at the same improving the access to healthy foods in the neighborhoods needing it the most. The local food system concept is not new and has been widely advocated in recent years. If implemented properly and supported by local county and municipal governments communities in need in Fairfield county would gain access to quality, fresh foods that are grown in a sustainable way which is environmentally and socially friendly. The added benefit is that farmers in Fairfield County and in the vicinity are predominantly producing certified organic foods. The organic foods would provide the additional and much needed health effect in the food desert communities.
The support for local farmers would not only benefit environment but also relief the overburdened healthcare system by having less people using it due to improved health through better and well balanced diet. The social healthcare programs would also benefit by being less overburdened with patients and able to balance their budgets more effectively.
The positive and optimistic recent development was the announcement by Walmart to enter the organic products space. They will be competing with stores like Whole Foods and are projecting to cut the prices for comparable organic products at these stores by over 25% percent. That should result in more availability and variety of organic products at affordable prices. Walmart explanation of the feasibility for this dramatic price drop is that they will be leveraging their economies of scale to deliver competitive prices.
The Walmart example illustrates that it is feasible that a healthy food at affordable prices can be provided to larger public, including that with low-income. If Walmart through his vast network of stores can provide organic foods that are 25% cheaper it means that those prices would be at the level of conventional healthy foods and should be affordable to a wider spectrum of low-income families. This is because the “organic foods generally commend a premium over conventional foods of around 25 to 30 percent” (Maresca). Customers (including low-income families) in my area would benefits from this development since there are a lot of Walmart stores locations in Fairfield County. In addition the competitive prices of healthy foods offered by Walmart would stimulate competition and force other stores to provide customers with affordable prices.
With greater awareness and support of local Fairfield communities the issue of lack of access to healthy foods can be reversed and overtime eradicated. Everyone in the community would be a winner: the farmers, the low- income families, the health system and the overall public and its finances. The local environment would also be positively impacted. The local production can also contribute significantly to the job creation in the local communities and strengthening of local economy.
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