In April, Kimberly Hart made a resolution to lose weight on the advice of her doctor. Hart, who is 61 and lives in New Haven, Connecticut, suffers from high blood pressure and cholesterol. These factors, combined with her age and weight, put her at high risk of developing diabetes, and she wanted to do everything she could to prevent this from happening.
One thing under his control, Hart thought at the time, was his diet. She started seeing a nutritionist, a cost covered by Medicaid, and eating healthier. But his efforts soon came up against the reality of rising grocery prices.
In May Hart began to feel the pinch of higher prices, and in June she realized she had to completely upend the way she put food on the table for herself and her son.
She swapped wheat bread for house brand white bread, “which is too bad,” she says, “because I know wheat bread is healthier for me, but I also know white bread is cheaper”. She switched from frozen vegetables to cheaper canned ones, despite lower nutritional value and higher sodium content, and no longer buys fresh fruit. Four months since her April resolution, she says, the scale hasn’t moved.
“The more colorful a plate, the healthier it is, because you get your color from fresh vegetables,” she said. But because of his financial situation, “I can’t really do that.”
Inflation is making healthy eating out of reach for millions of people like Hart, a trend that public health experts say could increase their risk of long-term diet-related illnesses. Over the past year, food prices have risen rapidly as agricultural supply chains have collapsed under the pressure of food shortages, labor shortages and high fuel costs.
By the end of July, the cost of eating food at home was up more than 13% from the same period a year ago, according to the Consumer Price Index. According to a survey conducted by the Urban Institute in June and July, more than 20% of adults said they had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, an increase of more than 6% from the spring of the last year.
It may seem counterintuitive, but scientists have long pointed to links between poverty and obesity. This week, the Biden administration launched a national strategy to address the country’s “urgent nutrition-related health crisis,” including the “rising prevalence” of diet-related diseases such as obesity.
In response to rising prices, people are buying cheaper processed foods that are high in calories, sugar and sodium rather than more expensive options like fruits and vegetables, protein and whole grains, health researchers say public and experts in the fight against hunger.
“Highly processed foods are always the most affordable for people and they can stretch longer and they have a longer shelf life,” said Mariana Chilton, professor and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Drexel University. “People want to buy healthy foods, but then they make the choice to get foods that aren’t as healthy but stay on the shelves longer and can stretch and help their kids feel fuller.”
Over the long term, the researchers found that food insecurity – defined by the Department of Agriculture as uncertain access to nutritionally adequate food – is likely associated with obesity, a condition which in turn increases the risk of problems such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
“People in the United States who are more food insecure have higher rates of overweight and obesity,” said Parke Wilde, professor of food and nutrition policy at Tufts University. Wilde added that low-income people who don’t have access to social security programs bear the brunt of inflation-related food insecurity and the health risks associated with it.
While researchers have studied the link between food insecurity and obesity for decades, exactly how the two issues are related remains unclear, Wilde said. An explanation can be in the uncertainty it brings. “Having a boom and bust cycle in the amount of food you might have sends a signal to your body that it needs to conserve food energy, and it could put people at higher risk for being overweight. and obesity,” Wilde said.
Hunger advocates say inflation-induced food insecurity illustrates the powerful role poverty plays in shaping food choices and healthy eating, which have historically been defined as a matter of intake. individual decision.
“There’s this feeling that low-income people don’t know how to eat,” said Thomas Reynolds, chief executive of Northwest Harvest, a network of 300 food banks in Washington state. “I totally reject that. It’s really about making very practical decisions, because money is so tight right now.
Katrena Ross, 40, a legal assistant and mother of three living in Redford, Michigan, began to worry about inflation in February. At the time, Ross was already struggling to feed her family on a monthly budget of less than $200, a situation that made her especially sensitive to even the slightest price increase.
As prices began to rise in the spring, Ross could no longer afford to buy so much fresh produce and meat. Instead, she got peanut butter and jelly, pasta, boxed macaroni and cheese and $1 ramen noodles — a food she hadn’t bought in years.
“I would like to say that I think about what eating like this would do to me and my children, but it’s not really a luxury that I have, because I can only think of: what What am I feeding them now? What should I do so they don’t go to bed hungry?”
Public health experts point out that food insecurity is not limited to physical consequences – it can also have adverse psychological effects.
“A lot of people just think about obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and yes, all of that can be exacerbated, but a lot of people tend to forget about the emotional consequences,” Chilton said of the ‘Drexel University.
Eventually, Ross made the decision to bring his family home with his mother and stepfather, a move that allowed the merged household to pool resources and shoulder the burden of inflation together. It was a choice that also gave him some much-needed peace of mind.
“My ability to not provide basics for my family like food and to keep a roof over…it was destroying my sanity,” Ross said. “I felt like I let them down. I felt like I couldn’t keep them safe or provide for them properly, which for a mother or for any parent, that affects really your self-esteem.
Northwest Hunger’s Reynolds said there are many ways lawmakers can strengthen the social safety net to prevent families like Ross’s from experiencing food insecurity in the first place, as well as help them make face the unexpected costs of rapid inflation.
“Poverty and hunger are so intertwined that they are almost interchangeable,” he said. He thinks policies such as universal basic income, free school meals and higher payments to people under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap, formerly known as food stamps) could boost security. food and make healthy eating more affordable.
For Hart, more generous Snap payments could make a significant difference in his life. Before the pandemic, she estimates she received about $400 a month from the program. But her 20-year-old son recently got a part-time job, and the extra income has caused their child benefits to plummet. Her son is now considering taking a better paid position, which she supports, but fears it will lead to even greater cuts to their monthly Snap allowance.
“It’s a catch-22,” she said. These days, she organizes her week around the food pantry queues, which she relies on for extra produce, dairy and meat.
Hart said she felt demoralized that she hadn’t lost weight since April. Sometimes she lies to her nutritionist about going on a healthier diet just to avoid the fact that she can’t afford it. “One day I might wake up diabetic,” Hart said. “If I could just eat healthier…but I can’t.”