The Class Question

Inequality in Food


Inequality in food isn't a trend found only in a third world country. The pattern is wide. Nicole Darmon and Adam Drewnowski in their "Does social class predict diet quality?" (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 87, no. 5, May 2008) find diet quality follows class stratification. The fact stands as: the poor have only the bad while the rich consume only the best.

Their study was based on a large body of epidemiologic data from scores of cross-sectional studies conducted in at least 15 countries in Europe, North America and Australia. The countries covered in the studies included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, the UK, the US. In their study Darmon and Drewnowski covered about 200 studies published in medical journals during the period 1982-2007.

Citing 22 studies Darmon and Drewnowski write in the "Introduction" section of the study report:
"Morbidity and mortality rates in industrialized societies follow a socioeconomic gradient. The more disadvantaged groups suffer from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, dental caries, and some forms of cancer. All of these diseases have a direct link to nutrition and diet. It has been suggested, more than once, that dietary factors may help explain some of the observed social inequities in health. The more affluent population subgroups are not only healthier and thinner, but they also consume higher-quality diets than do the poor. Diet quality is affected not only by age and sex, but also by occupation, education, and income levels—the conventional indexes of socioeconomic status (SES) or social class." As SES, they consider education, income, and/or occupation.

Children of workers and the poor are not spared by inequality.

Referring to a study in France Darmon and Drewnowski write: "[C]hildren of semiskilled and unskilled workers consumed significantly more sweets, bread, potatoes, cereals, and deli meats than did children from the upper SES group."

In the US, the researchers write, "children and adolescents from low SES households consumed less fruit and vegetables and a more limited variety of produce. Children from families with lower education levels had the lowest fruit intakes and the highest consumption of sweetened beverages."

Referring a number of European studies they add: "[L]ow fruit and vegetable intakes and a high frequency of soft drink consumption among low-SES children and adolescents." On the opposite, the researchers write, "higher SES groups had consistently higher intakes of most vitamins and minerals and fiber than did lower SES groups."

"Low-SES groups", Darmon and Drewnowski write, "had the lowest consumption of vitamin C, b-carotene, and folate, vitamin E, and plant-based polyphenols. Low iron intakes among low-SES populations were found in most studies and so were lower intakes of calcium and potassium."

The rich-poor inequality in the area of food is stark. The world system owns a lot for a few, and has nothing for many. An arrangement has thus been made. "Access to foods", Darmon and Drewnowski said, "can also be a function of the physical environment. Whereas supermarkets and grocery stores may cluster in the more affluent neighbor-hoods, some lower-income neighbor-hoods have been characterized as 'food deserts'."

The areas where the poor live bear signs of the poor and poverty. The researchers write : "Living in lower-income neighbor-hoods has been associated with lower consumption of fruit, vegetables, and fish. The quality of food choices was directly influenced by the ease of access to a supermarket as well as to the availability and variety of healthy foods in neighborhood stores. For example, foods recommended for the self management of diabetes are less likely to be stocked in East Harlem than on the Upper East Side." It's not a New York-reality.

Dhaka is no exception : Jurain, Tallabag, Mugda, Basabo, Jatrabari, Madartek in the capital city are completely different from Gulshan and Baridhara in the same city. The shops with their appearance, the commodities sold in shops in the two groups of areas in the city, the names, type and quality of food the people purchase, and the cookies children in the two groups of areas in the city are happy with, the amount of money consumers spend in the shops, even the sound and noise, the smells and odors, are completely different: one, for the "unpolished" low-income persons, and the other, for the "sophisticated" well-off, and rich. Socioeconcmic differences in dietary patterns are stark. In Luanda, Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Manila, the same divide and the same line of demarcation dominate. It's, the line between the rich and the poor, difficult, but not impossible, to cross.

The poor can only afford low-cost foods that satisfy their hunger, and those "nice" foods are available in low-income areas. The rich don't even know names and tastes of those foods as foods of the poor are "nasty". A slum dwelling woman in Dhaka, found a study, collects discarded rotten vegetables from a wholesale market. A portion of the collected rotten vegetables is consumed by the woman's family while the rest is sold to petty traders, and the traders sell those to the poor. (Farooque Chowdhury, "Urban poor : Neverending quest for energy", People's Report 2002-2003, Bangladesh Environment) In areas in the city of Dhaka, lower part of chicken legs, chicken intestines and chicken skin are sold. These are purchased in 250-300 grams by the low-income families. Sometimes, these are sold in smaller "shares", pieces kept together. Smaller meat pieces from cattle heads are cheaper. These are purchased by the low-income families. The fish sold at around 10:00-11:00 PM at Malibag crossing, near Shantinagar Bazaar, Nandipara in the capital city are cheaper. These are purchased by the poor. These, most of the time, reach to the state of rotting down. But, these, the near-rotten fish, the chicken skin, are the only opportunity to taste "a better food" for large section of the society living at the lower strata. Darmon and Drewnowski add: "[F]or low-SES groups, the ability to adopt a healthier diet may have less to do with motivation than with economic means." (op. cit.)

None will question the connection between food, health and transportation. "Low-income families", write Darmon and Drewnowski, "are less likely to own a car and may find it more difficult to reach out-of-town supermarkets, in urban as well as in rural areas. Deprived neighborhoods may limit not only food access but also opportunities for physical activity, because of the lack of facilities or because of security issues. Physical activity levels are lower among low-SES groups..." A visit to the Ramna Park in Dhaka in the morning will describe the same fact in a periphery-country. Sometimes, members of Dhaka-neo-elites drive to Mawa, kilometers away from the city, on the Padda, the lower part of the Ganga, to buy fresh Hilsha fish. The Dhaka-poor don't even have the time to dream it. The poor neither have the time and money required to travel there, nor the money to buy the fish while the rich have all.

Inequality is widespread. Darmon and Drewnowski write: "In very poor families, the lack of cooking equipment will in itself discourage cooking." Kitchens, if those are considered kitchens, of the poor, of the low-income Dhaka families bear the same signs of inequality if compared with the kitchens the Dhaka rich use, the appliances they own.

It's not only lack of cooking equipment in advanced capitalist economy, but lack of kitchen in the periphery is also a problem the poor face in an unequal reality. In many Dhaka slums, one oven is shared by a number of slum-poor families. Even, many lower middle class families share a single oven. In many Dhaka slums, there are long single room with 5, 7, 10 ovens, each of which are used by a number of poor households. Sometimes, poor households rent in oven in a lower middle class household near to their place of residence. Doesn't the reality hurt food quality of the poor? It's an economy of the kitchen-poor, and an economy of inequality.

Economy determines access to food, nutrients, health. "A nutrient density standard for vegetables and fruits: nutrients per calorie and nutrients per unit cost" (Darmon N, Darmon M, Maillot M & Drewnowski A, J Am Diet Asso, 2005, 105) and "Nutrient-dense food groups have high energy costs : an econometric approach to nutrient profiling" (Maillot M, Darmon N, Darmon M, Lafay L, Drewnowski A, JNutr, 2007, 137) discuss the issue. "Diet quality is influenced by socioeconomic position and may well be limited by financial access to nutrient-dense foods." They mention the broader problem of increasing disparities in incomes and wealth, declining real wage, etc. while discussing obesity and its links to the low-income persons.

Another study said: "[T]he low-income group derived fewer financial and nutritional benefits than the medium-income group from both price manipulations." (Nicole Darmon, Anne Lacroix, Laurent Muller & Bernard Ruffieux, "Food price policies improve diet quality while increasing socioeconomic inequalities in nutrition", Int J Behavioral Nutri and Physi Activity, 2014,11:66, doi:10.1186/1479-5868-11-66)

Existing glaring food inequalities, as evidenced above, raise a few "simple" questions: (1) Shall the world system eliminate the inequality? (2) Does the system possess the capacity? (3) Shall it feed all those failing to afford food? (4) What's the reason of the failure to arrange food, to get out of inequality? (5) Is there any reason/interest that stands as obstacle in formulating appropriate policies and effectively implementing those to ensure equality in accessing better food?

Vol. 47, No. 27, Jan 11 - 17, 2015