America’s Nutritional Inequality

Just a week ago, I was in a van for roughly thirteen hours, driving from New York to South Carolina. My job entailed helping with navigation via Google Maps. Although we stayed mainly on highways and freeways, I couldn’t help but look at the rural, seemingly poor towns we passed. As I zoomed in closer on the map, I noticed the recurring presence of McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s (once we reached Virginia), and other fast-food establishments. I thought about Whole Foods and a local health food store back home called Down to Earth, and the variety of fruits, vegetables, and health products one can choose from. Whole Foods and Down to Earth would be anomalies in most rural areas, where fast-food establishments dominate. Often we find ourselves so invested in the outcomes of major domestic and international events that we fail to think about issues like nutritional inequality, an issue that even one road trip can raise.

Fast-food establishments dominate smaller rural towns, because the price of land in the countryside is usually less than its price in bustling cities and their immediate suburbs. In San Francisco, a studio apartment could easily be listed at over a million dollars, while a plot of land in the country with exponentially greater square footage could sell for well under half a million. In addition, residents of wealthier cities have the means to financially support stores like Whole Foods, perhaps three of them within a five-mile radius. Thus, the socioeconomic divide between wealthier cities and poorer small towns can translate into nutritional inequality. Residents of metropolitan areas, including myself, often take the availability of these luxuries for granted. But the simple fact that customers in small towns are less able to buy frequently enough at such stores to keep them profitable is a big reason why you don’t see the occasional Whole Foods when you drive through the countryside. Sometimes I will crave fries from McDonald’s or Burger King. The very next day, I’ll go to my local health store, Down to Earth, and try out the new almond milk yogurt they have stocked. There are so many choices of foods where I live that I’ll get to the point of seeking out fast food as something different. But the reality for a child living in a poor small town may be just five different options, of fast food chains, to eat at. How is this fair? It isn’t, but we continue to perpetuate this unfairness by not considering problems like nutritional inequity, which may seem small in comparison with greater national issues.

The way to solve nutritional inequity, however, is not by donating money to build a Whole Foods in a poor town. This solves the surface problem in that town, but does not get beneath the surface by taking the time to ask questions like: “How can we educate more people about nutrition?” or “What kinds of programs and initiatives can be put together to alleviate the reliance on fast food?” Asking these types of questions may not solve the problem immediately, but it will surely provide a stronger foundation to build on.