You may have been hearing more about food insecurity these days. What does this term mean? Well, it’s more than a simple linear relationship between how much food is in your pantry, and your hunger and health. For instance, a study from the University of Michigan shows that as poverty rises, so does obesity in children. As a kid’s income level dropped, they found, the chances that they would be overweight went up.
This might take you aback—after all, you, like me, have probably seen heartbreaking images of malnourished children from poverty-stricken countries on the news. In contrast to international trends though, people in the United States who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity.
Why? Well, for one, people who live in poor communities often have little access to fresh foods—things like unprocessed fruits, vegetables and grains. Instead stores in these areas often offer cheap and easy to store items like canned foods, candy, sugary drinks, and high-fat, high-sodium snacks. Think about what life might be like if you had to eat exclusively from your local gas station’s convenience store. Poverty-dense areas are often called “food deserts.” This doesn’t mean there is no food, it means that the food that is available is low quality. In many poverty-dense regions, people are unable to access affordable healthy food, even when funds are available.
The double-edged sword of hunger and food availability is not the only reason as to why obesity tracks with poverty. Violence is more common in impoverished communities, preventing people from being active outside, or sending their kids out in the sunshine to burn some calories. Parks, trails and sports facilities are less available, and people who live in poverty-dense regions may be less able to afford gym membership, sports shoes, or exercise equipment.
Add to that, people behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce, according to the work of organizational behaviorist Kelly Monahan. When people lack the tools and resources needed to operate effectively, they fall prey to the scarcity mind-set. Humans have a finite capacity for making good decisions, and a state of scarcity can deplete us of the limited capacity that we have.
Monahan uses this example: Imagine packing for an extended trip with only a very small suitcase. Your friend, on the other hand, packs with a much larger one. Your friend has room for all the essentials while also having extra space to address contingencies. You, on the other hand, have no room for extras, and are required to make predictions about future needs—such as should you bring a raincoat or an extra pair of shoes. Your friend is able to bring these things “just in case.” In essence, the slack capacity afforded by your friend’s larger suitcase dramatically simplifies their planning (and ultimately enjoyment) relative to yours for the same trip.
If you apply the scarcity mindset to food and eating, it makes sense that a person, hungry or not, would choose the high-calorie foods if they aren’t sure where their next meal will come from. It’s not a rational decision in the long-term, it’s a rational decision in the short one under conditions of uncertainty.
We’ve been led to believe, in the past few decades, that overcoming obesity is a simple matter of self control. But humans are simply ill-equipped to deal with a landscape of cheap, convenient, calorie-dense foods that have been specifically engineered to be irresistible. We can’t shrug off all personal responsibility. But think about it this way. The people engineering the food that’s all around us are doing it with the specific intention to override ordinary human willpower.
Tamar Haspel, Washington Post food columnist, put it this way. “Let’s say you play Serena Williams at tennis. You are, of course, trounced. Do you blame your forehand? At some level, sure. But the real problem is that you have absolutely no business going up against the best in the world. Those food engineers with the billions of dollars? They’re Serena Williams. We’re just us, and our willpower is our forehand.
Some food for thought next time you consider those who deal with food insecurity. It’s just not as simple as it may seem.