As Black Unemployment Rises, So Does Our Unhealthy Eating

Report finds that less money equates consuming "bad" food, but is there more to it?

Posted: 07/19/2011 03:36 PM EDT
Filed Under unemployment

A few weeks ago we covered an article that Huffington Post reporter Janell Ross wrote about how the stress of unemployment is impacting African-American mortality rates. Now Ross is reporting on how high unemployment rates are impacting the way that Black folks eat.

 

Ross opens her piece with the story of Michele Washington, a 33-year-old mother of a young son, who, because of being laid off, has to eat McDonald's as a means to save money and feed her child. She lost her dream house in Atlanta and had to move back to New York. But her health has paid the price, something that millions of Americans can relate to.

 

Ross wrote:

 

While Monty dashes toward the counter, continuing his mantra, his mother trails behind, cringing. In the three years since she lost her full-time job, Washington, 33, has surrendered so much: her own home with its cherished kitchen; her car; her sense of sovereignty. Now, her son's chant reminds her of another element lost to diminished economic fortunes -- her commitment to healthy eating.

 

"It's kind of embarrassing when your seven-year-old has his own rhyme about the Mickey D's' dollar menu," says Washington. "This is not a mother-of-the-year moment."

 

Like millions of Americans who have suffered declines in their living standards as the jobless rate has climbed, Washington has found herself eating less-nutritious fare for the simple reason that quality food tends to cost more and takes more time to prepare. Three or four nights a week, she and her son now complete a day spent shuttling between her part-time job, his school and her sister's cramped apartment—their long-term "temporary" home—with dinner at a fast-food restaurant that caters to their craving for immediate calories at rock-bottom prices. She has put on more pounds than she is willing to discuss.

 

What's real is that we all know someone like Washington, if we are not her ourselves. The less money that people have, the more they have to sacrifice in order to survive. Electricity trumps apples. Heat trumps organic chicken legs. Car payments trump fresh spinach.

 

And it's unfortunate, because we keep telling people to lead healthier, more productive lives, but the truth is that living a healthier life can cost more. Perhaps that's why, according to a Gallop poll from last month, 4.5 million Americans are eating less-healthy food this year than they were a year ago. And purchases on fruits and vegetables have gone down as well. And given that the African-American unemployment rate is almost double that of our white counterparts, not to mention the lack of access to healthy foods among other factors, the unemployment/unhealthy eating trend deeply impacts our community.

 

But this issue about Black health and food consumption isn't merely about unemployment: The high unemployment rates only highlight the fact that this is about economics. As stated up top, this is about what can people afford and what they have to sacrifice in order to stay afloat. And many of the experts that Ross talked to agree: They believe that a majority of people in this country who are low income eat poorly not because they are stupid and ignorant, but to spend less money.

 

And I hear that, but do we always eat fast food because it's cheaper? Or is it because we desire how it tastes and it doesn't require us to cook? Do we always choose to eat the fried chicken and French fries at the Chinese spot because all we have is five bucks?

 

Two apple pies at McDonalds cost a dollar, yet I can buy three bananas from a fruit stand or a local grocery story for one dollar. But what are most people going to want to eat?

 

The price of one value meal—supersized—can cost me almost 10 dollars in New York City and that is only one meal. For almost the same amount of money, I can purchase turkey meat, low sodium pasta sauce and whole grain organic pasta and it will provide four meals (which is equivalent to $2.50 per serving).

 

Which one is the better deal? Which can we box up and have for lunch the next day? But which one will we end up eating instead?

 

So when it comes to food access, health and economics in Black America, it's all very complicated. But it needs to be emphasized that eating healthy on a tight income is not impossible. Eating healthy on a tight budget in some instances can be achieved by thinking outside the Golden Arches' box.

(Photo: REUTERS/MARIO ANZUONI/LANDOV)

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