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People in poverty may resort to junk food

by Sallie Culbreth, guest column | September 17, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

"Food desert" describes areas in our community where fresh, nutritious foods are not easily accessible. "Food insecurity" describes limited availability of nutritious or safe foods or the limited capacity to obtain enough food in a socially acceptable way (Vilar-Compte et al. International Journal for Equity in Health, 2021).

Groceries are often where families in poverty will skimp. The cost of healthy food is frequently out of reach, leaving struggling households with diets made up of highly processed, high-calorie, high trans fats, sodium, and sugary foods. The result is greater instances of obesity because of the way the body processes what we call "junk food." It also leads to malnutrition because the body isn't getting what it needs. Yes, obesity and malnutrition can coexist.

Junk food promotes insulin resistance which can lead to weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. In addition to insulin resistance, it is linked to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Junk food also over-stimulates the reward pathways in the brain, which can create an addiction to avoid negative rewards that come from going without.

Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are not unique to those who live in poverty, but the opportunity to eat healthy foods to combat these diseases is extremely limited. Besides the barrier of cost, transportation to grocery stores, the ability to safely store and prepare meals, and the chronic stress of living in poverty all contribute to malnutrition.

Earlier this year, the Arkansas Community Foundation's Engage magazine devoted an entire issue to food insecurity ( It presents a troubling picture of Arkansas's poor and the limited access to nutritious food. It also presents some wonderful programs taking place across the state that can inspire us all to creatively problem-solve. Community gardens, culturally sensitive crops being grown -- such as cactus (a nutritionally dense food), teaching urban farming to community members, food gardens on college campuses, partnerships between clinics and local growers to cultivate a "food farmacy," and entrepreneurs who came back home to open community grocery stores that become social gathering places -- all provide innovative solutions to food insecurity.

As always, collaboration and working partnerships are the key to helping people move from poverty to stability and from malnutrition to improved health and well-being.

Sallie Culbreth is the executive director of Cooperative Christian Ministries and Clinic is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve life for those who are under-resourced.

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