“Why Don’t Poor People Eat Healthier?” A Challenge

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By Christine Ennulat
Posted on 10/13/2014

Here’s a challenge: Assemble a meal for six from the offerings of the neighborhood convenience store. You have $15 to spend. Ready, set, go.

Options will be found on the chips-and-crackers aisle, the candy-and-cake aisle and the cereal-bread-and-cat food aisle; in cases holding muffins and donuts, hot dogs and taquitos, breakfast and lunch sandwiches; in coolers filled with soda, beer and ice cream. One end of the refrigerator wall is reserved for a few half-gallons of milk and three or four cartons of eggs. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables.

child with vegetables

“Why don’t poor people just eat healthier?” is a common question, and the usual answer is “Someone should teach them to make healthier choices.” While it is enormously important to teach people how to eat and cook more healthily, the benefit is sustainable only when they have access to the food it’s recommended that they cook.


Any day of the year, prepare a nutritious meal for six under the following conditions:

  • You have a two-burner propane stove, one pot and one frying pan.
  • You have $15 to spend.
  • You may use no fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • Your refrigerator broke last year, and you haven’t been able to afford getting it fixed.

Scoring depends on the balance of protein and nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Ready, set, go.

For people who live in certain low-income areas of Mississippi, where the nearest grocery store is several miles away, the only accessible place to purchase food is a convenience store.

On South Dakota’s reservations, there are very few grocery stores, and those are miles away from most communities. Even if residents can get there, the prices are prohibitive and the choices limited. Keeping a car is too expensive for many, and there is no public transportation.

In fact, such situations — known as “food deserts” — exist in many of ChildFund’s communities in Mississippi, the Great Plains and south Texas.

These areas also represent the highest concentrations of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease nationwide. According to the American Diabetes Association, American Indians are 2.2 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. In Mississippi, according to a report by the Trust for American Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, youth obesity tops rates in the rest of the nation.

When the four food groups available are refined sugars, trans fats, white flour and salt, the correlations to poor health outcomes make sense.

ChildFund is hard at work in its U.S. programs to help children, youth, families and communities increase their understanding around the importance of healthy eating and physical fitness. Working alongside partners already in the communities, ChildFund is focusing on community and youth engagement approaches to hunger, proper nutrition and physical fitness.

In Mississippi, children receive nutritional support in the form of hot meals during after-school programs and take-home snack packs on weekends, to help families stretch their resources. In South Dakota, children and youth are learning about and taking responsibility for caring for community gardens. In all of our areas, children are encouraged to be more physically active through our Just Read! program, where they explore monthly themes such as Health & Fitness, Park Olympics, Harvest Time and Get Moving by reading books and participating in games and activities that reinforce the themes.

Meanwhile, government food programs do fill some of the gaps, but food stamps are used up quickly, and the commodity foods received through government food distribution programs stretch only so far. In many cases, people’s resourcefulness closes the gaps further as they share and exchange with neighbors and avail themselves of local resources, however meager.

Next month, many of these families and others in ChildFund’s U.S. program areas will enjoy a decent traditional Thanksgiving meal thanks to additional resources that tend to become available during the holidays. Changing the remaining 360-plus days of the year is the real challenge.