To say the cost of healthy living is out of reach for most people is an understatement. Low to middle-class subsets of the population has difficulty affording their own rent and mortgage payments let alone clean organic and unprocessed foods. Nutritionally sound chemical-free diets have achieved many distinctions to combat and prevent the most threatening diseases, but the question is can people afford them?
Numerous researchers have demonstrated relationships between the food environment and diet, and frequently have pointed to the grocery gap–and the resulting “food deserts”–as a significant contributor to poor nutrition and rising rates of obesity and diet-related chronic illnesses.
If access to foods that are free from genetically modified organisms (GMO), pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical constituents are too expensive for most people then how is a society ever to attain and overcome health obstacles if these diets are only for the rich?
A prime example is the Mediterranean diet hailed as an international star and acclaimed by the scientific community as the best dietary paradigm. And yet this eating model seems to creak under the burden of the economic crisis scaring the food trolley of millions of families worldwide.
The alarm was raised by a team of Italian scientists from the Research Laboratories at the Fondazione di ricerca e cura Giovanni Paolo II — Catholic University of Campobasso who published in the British Medical Journal, BMJ Open, the results of a study on 13,000 subjects.
“Our hypothesis comes from a pretty simple observation. — argues Marialaura Bonaccio first author of the study — We sought to see whether the increasing cost of the main food products and the progressive impoverishment of people could contribute to the obesity pandemic which has been affecting the countries of the Mediterranean area during the recent years, including Italy.”
Researchers analyzed information on over 13,000 people, a sub-sample of the widest epidemiological Moli-sani Project. Since 2005 this project has been recruiting about 25,000 adult subjects from the Molise region aiming to investigate the relationship between genetic and environmental factors in the onset of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease and tumors. The authors explored the association between income and dietary habits of participants, evaluated according to specific scores of adherence to Mediterranean diet.
“We found that low-income people showed the poorest adherence to Mediterranean diet as compared to those in the uppermost group of income — says Licia Iacoviello, chairperson of the Moli-sani Project– In particular, high-income people have 72% odds of being in the top category of adherence to Mediterranean diet. This means a less healthy diet for the poorest, who are more likely to get prepackaged or junk food, often cheaper than the fresh foods of the Mediterranean tradition. In the lowest-income category we have recorded a higher prevalence of obesity as well. Low-income people report 36 % of obesity compared to 20% in the uppermost income class”.
“Obviously we have considered all the possible confounding factors which may bias the observed effects — the authors say –The educational level, for instance, has a huge role in determining health status, as showed by previous studies. That is why we have further divided our population according to educational level but in this case too income appears to influence people’s food choices”.
“Another problem is that people are not instructed on the healthiest foods by their governments,” said nutritionist and dietician Elios Arvantis. “The food pyramids designed and approved by public health officials are out of date and inappropriately assigns unhealthy foods to be consumed in large proportions.” Arvantis maintains that there is no emphasis or importance on obtaining chemical-free, unprocessed or GMO-free foods in developed countries.
“We know more than ever about the science of nutrition, and yet we have not yet been able to move the needle on healthful eating,” said Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.. The government should provide help for meeting the nutritional guidelines in an affordable way.
He criticized some of the marketing for a healthy diet — for example, the image of a plate of salmon and leafy greens — and said a meal like that is not affordable for many Americans.
“Considering that more than 90 percent of people are deficient in critical minerals and micronutrients, not to mention overburdened by hypertoxicity, it is almost possible to meet the required levels of nutrition to advance health on limited budgets,” said Arvantis.
People who spend the most on food tend to get the closest to meeting the actual guidelines required for these health demands. Those who spend the least have the lowest intakes of the vitamins, minerals and vital nutrients and the highest consumption of processed foods and added sugar.
“When people seek to address the health problems that develop due to poor diets, many of them are encouraged to purchase low-quality supplements which are still expensive and regardless ineffective,” stated Arvantis.
Hilary Seligman, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said Monsivais’ research is an interesting addition to the debate about healthy eating and food insecurity, her area of expertise. A lot of people assume the poor eat cheap food because it tastes good, but they would make better choices if they could afford to, said Seligman.
“Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don’t have enough money to eat the way they want to eat,” Seligman said. Recent estimates show 49 million Americans make food decisions based on cost, she added.
In numerous cities across the developed world, a troubling “grocery gap”: low-income and even middle-income subsets of the population often have less access to the clean organic and chemical-free foods they require unless they have reputable local farms they can access for such foods. Higher-income communities have more accessibility due to more money and the means to travel longer distances to access the healthier foods.
Claudia Fernandez who works as a nutritional guidance counselor in a New York City Middle School says it’s all about access. “If all you have access to through your public transportation system is small corner convenience stores and conventional grocers, the range of nutritious foods is very limited,” she stated.
Considering that many organic, gmo-free foods are often double the price of their conventional counterparts, an increase in demand would lower the wholesale price and subsequent retail price. Fernandez says this will only happen when we make foods more accessible and when people start embracing these foods for themselves and their families.
“An interesting aspect of our study — argues Giovanni de Gaetano, director of the Research Laboratories at the centre of Campobasso — is that the income categories considered were not so different from each another. We are talking about relatively small economic differences, from 10,000 Euros to over 40,000 Euros net per year.
Yet, also in a quite homogenous region as Molise we could observe substantial differences in dietary habits and consequent health outcomes. This is a very serious issue which shall foster a discussion on healthy food accessibility in terms of economic costs within those appointed to guarantee the rights to health to everybody, independently from socioeconomic status. Keep on gaining proofs on the beneficial effect of Mediterranean diet is no longer the only task. We have to be sure that everyone has the chance to take advantage from it.”
6 Ways To Buy Pesticide-Free Organics on a Budget
1. Put your green bargaining cap on and talk with farmers at the markets to negotiate a lower price for your produce. We know they work hard for their money but it can’t hurt to ask. Bartering for fare isn’t as strange as it sounds. Maybe they’ll unload the less popular fruits and vegetables for less too.
2. Everyone’s looking for the perfect specimen. You might want to choose produce that’s been passed over, because of minimal bruising and spotting, and ask for a lower price. Let’s face it, basil is going to wilt anyways once you chop it up or cook it so buying some that’s already on its way isn’t going to affect its flavor. It just means that you’ll want to use it sooner than later — which isn’t a bad thing.
3. More and more of the bigger food warehouse stores (like Sam’s Club, for example) are carrying organic items. If you can buy in bulk (dried beans, rice, canned tomatoes, organic coffee, etc.) this will save you a few dollars too. If you want to buy vegetables in greater quantities because of price, some will freeze nicely if slightly blanched beforehand. Asparagus, green beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, turnips and squashes can all be frozen.
4. Before you go to the Farmer’s Market and get pulled into the romance of it all (“I must have those gorgeous garlic scapes – now what do I do with them?”), plan ahead and go with a set list in mind. If an item is too expensive because it’s just come in season, wait a week and the price may go down.
5. The proliferation of websites that sell organic food and related items is ever-growing and with the incentive of free shipping on some sites, this may be a great alternative for you. Amazon.com is even dabbling in selling organic grocery store items, so you’ll have a variety of sources from which to choose.
6. Just as you search for coupons in your local supermarket flyers (or watch them haphazardly fall out of your weekend newspaper), many of the organic brand websites offer a way to print out coupons too. If you don’t have access to a printer, some of the websites will simply send you the coupons if you supply your snail mail address.
What To Do When You Can’t Find Organics Or Pesticide-Free Fruits and Vegetables? If you don’t have the advantage of buying organic and your local supermarket only carries fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides, reduce your risk by finding out which ones are the worst. Check 47 Fruits and Veggies and Their Pesticide Load.
About the Author
Natasha Longo has a master’s degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.