While the government focuses on the omicron variant and booster shots it is ignoring another way to prevent severe covid infection, through basic nutrition. Covid infections are 12 times more deadly in Americans who have chronic diet-related illnesses including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Access to nutritious foods can positively reduce both chronic illnesses and health care costs. Despite this fact, challenges surrounding access to nutritious foods still plague the poor and communities of color.
The implications of food deserts in some communities are not about convenience but life, death, and longevity. People living in highly segregated cities have up to 20 to 30 year difference in life expectancy based on the income level of their particular neighborhood. Food insecurity plays a sizable role in the development of chronic diseases by limiting individuals’ physical and financial access to nourishing foods. As Americans gather for the holidays this year, their tables and their health status may look considerably different based on their zip codes.
Food insecurity, impacting 1 in 8 Americans, is present when households do not have consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life. This refers to physical access to grocery stores as well as economic opportunity to afford healthy foods. Black Americans, who have been systematically denied these economic opportunities and deprived of neighborhood resources like grocery stores, are unsurprisingly especially impacted by this double burden. With limited economic incentive to provide this basic right in poor neighborhoods, many national chains shut down or avoid opening store locations, resulting in food deserts.
Without access to healthy food, many people in poor neighborhoods are unable to take preventive steps to maintain their health with adequate nutrition. The Black-White life expectancy gap is an alarming five years. Black Americans are historically more likely to live in poor neighborhoods and experience significantly higher incidence of obesity- and nutrition-related disease than white Americans. Many diet-related conditions can be improved with incremental diet modifications. But the burden for gaining access and affording healthy foods is currently placed on the individual, despite costs to the United States health system related to poor nutrition totaling 50 billion dollars per year.
Many programs including SNAP, WIC, and the federal school lunch program help provide financial resources and food to households with low income. SNAP recipients even recently received a boost in benefits (~$12-$16 per person per month) following re-evaluation of the cost of a healthy diet in 2021. But at an average of $5.85 per day, participants are limited in the impact this buying power has to improve their overall health. Increasing direct benefits to at least $10 per person per day more accurately reflects the cost of a healthy diet and could have a direct impact on recipients’ health and reduce health care costs.
Pilot studies also indicate that additional incentives to purchase fruits and vegetables using SNAP benefits increase purchase and consumption of these foods. These financial benefits are enhanced by the invaluable benefits people experience when they are free from illness and enjoy the dignity of having enough food to feed and nourish their families. Unfortunately, this upgraded benefit would not immediately improve access to grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. As we have seen, few corporations with limited stake in local communities are willing to support communities that offer a lower profit margin. However, with improved buying power, lower income neighborhoods can compete with wealthier communities.
Every five years, the farm bill expires and a debate ensues about just how much food people with low incomes need to get by. Instead, we must consider the implications of under-funding these programs, as the bare minimum is not working. The United States remains one of the most obese nations in the world. Obesity and many other chronic conditions can be traced back to years of poor nutrition. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on health insurance programs like Medicaid and CHIP. Time and again, studies demonstrate that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as health care costs reliably decrease when participation in SNAP increases. If the United States wants to reduce the life expectancy gap that exists in low-income communities, it can do so by redirecting funding to the kind of prevention that provides dignity to its recipients—bringing healthy, delicious food home to nourish their families. Sufficiently funding this benefit program will result in healthier individuals with more purchasing power, and healthier neighborhoods where communities can thrive.
Molly DePrenger is an expert dietitian and lecturer at Rush University where she serves in the department of surgery. She is passionate about patient care and research. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.