The pressure of diet culture and “clean eating” play a significant part in American culture. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate is 42.4% nationally and 34% in North Carolina. Diet is the first line of defense against obesity and the health issues that come with it, like heart disease and stroke. According to doctors, a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains and little sugar is the way to go. Eating well seems easy but it’s not as straightforward as it appears. Healthy food is expensive and sometimes hard to find. It’s a privilege in America that not everyone has.
There are a variety of factors that limit people’s access to healthy diets. Healthy food is more expensive than processed foods. Packaged, processed food is cheaper to mass produce and easier to transport than fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. According to a Harvard study, healthy diets that include fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains cost an additional $1.50 per person a day than unhealthy diets that consist of processed foods, meat and refined grains. $1.50 may not seem like much, but it adds up for people with low incomes.
In addition to healthy foods being more expensive, they can be hard to find in low-income communities. Food deserts are common in inner city and rural communities. According to the Annie E. Kasey Foundation, food deserts are areas in which residents have very few accessible options to purchase affordable and healthy foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are most common in areas with low incomes, high rates of unemployment and low levels of education. With the combination of high prices and lack of healthy foods in stores, low-income communities are left with processed foods rich in sodium, sugar and fat with a long shelf life.
Food deserts are common in rural Western North Carolina. Many residents of the region are suffering from malnutrition as a result of their lack of access to healthy, fresh food. People experiencing malnutrition are susceptible to a slew of health conditions that severely impact the body’s ability to function. It can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, severe variations in weight and various organ failures including the kidneys, brain and heart. Diet is crucial to overall health. Being both poor and healthy in America is a very difficult thing to do.
Access to healthy food is a longstanding battle in rural Appalachia. Poverty is not uncommon in Appalachia and communities tend to be more spread out than in urban areas. Public transportation is rare in rural communities so if you don’t have a car, getting to a grocery store is a challenge. Boone is fortunate enough to have public transportation and access to fresh food, but the town faces another challenge when it comes to healthy eating: food insecurity among college students.
About 38% of students at four-year colleges struggle with food insecurity. Because of COVID-19, 18-24 year olds have faced some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Additionally, many students are not eligible for federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. App State has a food pantry and free store available to those in need, but many other students around the country aren’t as lucky. There is a sense of shame associated with asking for help and many are hesitant to use food pantries and other resources. Anonymous and discrete no-questions-asked food pantries are a solution to fighting the stigma and shame around asking for help in order to put food on the table.
Americans are not guaranteed access to fresh, healthy food even though we live in one of the richest countries in the world. Healthy eating is not a right in the U.S., although it should be. It shouldn’t be a privilege for those who can afford it.