Poor suffer from bad food choices

Central to the debate about health care reform is a near-universal political consensus that we can control health care costs by preventing disease and living more healthy lives. Doing so would not only save lives but money as well — lots of it. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers study recently found that preventable obesity and poor nutrition cost the U.S. more than $500 billion a year — five times the annual cost of providing universal health insurance.

To be sure, the data show that low-income minority populations are hardest hit: African Americans and Hispanics suffer disproportionately from obesity and its related health ailments, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. As troubling as the data are, however, most experts say that the solution is well within our grasp.

For starters, we need better access to primary health care.

Second, we need a “good health” evangelist movement. In recent years, public schools have reduced the number of soda vending machines and high-sugar and fatty foods from cafeteria menus — a very important first step, according to the consensus of nutrition experts. But we need more such initiatives.

Third — and this is key — we need to stop the whack-a-mole syndrome in prevention. As schools get healthier, their neighborhood stores become less healthy. The convenience store industry now concedes that 27 percent of teen purchases in their stores are tobacco-related, says a 2005 study.

Finally — and perhaps most important — we must ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to buy healthy food for their families.

Experts agree that the health of millions of Americans suffers because nearby stores don’t carry fresh produce and other healthful options.

Yet the retail food industry is silently but stubbornly standing in the way of reform. Call it dietary redlining — depriving many Americans access to healthy food.

African-American neighborhoods are only 52 percent as likely to have a chain supermarket as white neighborhoods, according to a 2006 study by researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

So African-American, Hispanic and other minority communities are often forced into the “food ghetto” — local convenience stores that disproportionately hawk processed food and junk food. Food from convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores appears to be, in the opinion of prevention experts, the main villain when it comes to living healthy.

A report published this year by the National Academy of Sciences found that residents of Chicago’s “food desert” areas — where convenience stores significantly outnumbered mainstream supermarkets — had significantly higher rates of diabetes and higher-than-average body-mass-index ratios (a high BMI is associated with a wide range of negative health consequences).

Further, on the rare occasions when a supermarket chain locates in a low-income community or minority communities, reports from around the country confirm that these supermarkets tend to stock lower-quality produce and a greater percentage of items that lead to obesity, such as trans fats and saturated fats.

Consumers of convenience store diets pay dearly — and not just with their health. Convenience stores mark up food prices by at least 20 percent, news outlets report. That amounts to a tax of $1,200 a year per family in higher food expenses for residents of “food deserts.”

A recent Washington Post article found a loaf of bread went for $2.99 in a city convenience store, vs. the $1.20 price at a supermarket in the suburbs — a 150 percent more.

Congress has addressed this “food ghetto” problem rather fleetingly. It’s time to refocus the effort.

All Americans, regardless of race or geography, should have access to the resources they need to live healthier lives.

Unfortunately, no health care reform will work unless we take the basic steps to start making Americans — particularly low-income communities — less sick.

Dr. E. Faye Williams is national chair of the National Congress of Black Women.