Explaining the food gap
Hunger — the painful sensation that someone feels on a regular basis due to lack of food — is a relatively rare phenomenon in America today, but it nevertheless afflicts a small number of U.S. residents on an intermittent basis. The more common form of food insufficiency is known as food insecurity, a condition experienced by a much larger number of people who regularly run out of food or simply don’t know where their next meal will come from.
As our knowledge of the connection between diet and health has increased, the food gap has taken on yet another dimension, one that, ironically, includes the overconsumption of food. By overconsumption we generally mean a combination of eating too much of the wrong thing and too little of the right thing. Overweight and obese Americans now make up more than 60 percent of the population. Because of their association with the nation’s increased diabetes rate and other diet-related illnesses, obesity and overweight are conditions that threaten the public health in ways that generally surpass the effects of hunger and food insecurity. As such, they have become central components of this country’s food gap.
Yet hunger, food insecurity, poverty, and overweight/obesity often have overlapping associations and connections, and as with supermarket abandonment, the community or environmental context is just as important as the income of an individual household. What we now call food deserts, for instance, are places with too few choices of healthy and affordable food, and are often oversaturated with unhealthy food outlets such as fast-food joints. People who live in or near food deserts tend to be poorer and have fewer healthy food options, which in turn contributes to their high overweight/obesity rates and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating and perplexing features of the food gap is a certain relativistic quality that has worked its way into our food system over the past ten years. Just as lower-income groups make some small gains in closing the food gap by, say, having access to new food stores in city neighborhoods or benefiting from a marginal improvement in the Food Stamp Program, higher-income groups leap ahead with an increase in their purchase of organic and locally produced food. In other words, as trends in consumption associated with lifestyle and health expand one class’s universe of choice and perceived health benefits, a lower, less privileged class barely catches up to where the other class was in the last decade. The gap never decreases and indeed often increases.
In all the ways that we think about the food gap, we must think as well about the food system. In its simplest sense, food system thinking doesn’t permit us to isolate one segment of food activity from another. We can’t, for instance, think only about farming without also thinking about eating. We can’t set a price for a food product without being sure that enough people want it badly enough to pay that price. All parts of the system, from seed to table, are connected in a vast and complicated web, and the more we understand those connections, the more likely we are to narrow the food gap.
Mark Winne, from Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty