Why do we eat bad food?

During our Food and Faith panel discussion at the Wild Goose Festival one of the panelists remarked, “Poor people don’t eat badly because they’re stupid.  They eat badly because they’re poor.”

Of course a comment like that (equating being uninformed with being stupid) tends to kill any discussion of the importance of food, dietary and nutrition education.  After a statement like that, to attribute poor food decisions to anything other than poverty is to risk being construed as believing poor people are stupid.

I’m sure there are plenty of poor people who are stupid, just as they are plenty of stupid rich people.  But a lack of awareness of the consequences of food choices isn’t “stupidity.”

Although it is commonly believed that it costs a lot of money to eat a healthy diet, that just isn’t true.  In fact, a healthy diet is less expensive than a diet of health-destroying food.  Obesity-inducing foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants cost more (both immediately and in the long term) than rice, beans, frozen vegetables and many other healthy staples.  And of course cheaper still are fresh veggies from a backyard garden.

One of the speakers on the panel was Olufemi Lewis, who runs Ujamaa Freedom Market in Asheville.  Having improved her own health through good food choices, she was distressed by “the candy bus,” a mobile convenience store that comes into low-income communities in Asheville selling candy, cigarettes, and junk food.  She founded her organization to offer a healthy food alternative.  Their bus brings fresh vegetables and healthy food into those same communities. But when they began coming, no one came to buy the vegetables.  They got their food from the candy bus instead.  Access to affordable healthy food just wasn’t enough.  Education was needed.

I’ve blogged before about a project in Philadelphia that brought a fresh food market into a food desert, only to find that no one came to buy food there.

Elvis Presley was fabulously wealthy, but died young in part because of a diet of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

My guess is that if a person who regularly eat at KFC won the lottery, that person wouldn’t suddenly start shopping for organic food at the farmer’s market.  He’d just eat more KFC.  Which brings to mind this hilarious scene from Talladega Nights.  Notice how this family ate once they were wealthy.

I’m convinced that there are three primary reasons our society eats so badly.  First, we’ve come to prefer the taste of fatty, sugary, salty processed foods and we lack the dietary discipline to avoid such foods or eat them only in moderation.  The problem is compounded by the fact that the manufacturers of these foods spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertising them and manipulating our behavior.  Secondly, bad food is usually more convenient.  It takes little or no time to prepare and for those who live in food deserts it may be the only food reasonably available. Third, and most important in my opinion, is a lack of knowledge about good food choices.  By and large we don’t understand and appreciate the adverse health consequences of eating badly.  We don’t know where to get good food or how to prepare it.  We falsely believe that eating healthy food is too expensive.

As a society we are overfed and undernourished.  We are the first society in the history of the world to have that problem.  While it is certainly good that we no longer have to fear starvation, we must learn sensible diets or we’re only substituting one set of food-related health problems for another.

To call for better food education is not to label anyone as “stupid.”  The truth is that a large segment of the population, poor and otherwise, needs to be better educated about diet, nutrition and food choices.  A strong argument could be made that to ignore that reality would be stupid.