This link between poverty and processed foods is illustrated in a new book, “Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It,” written by three sociologists who study food, families and inequality. The authors — Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott — studied 168 poor and middle-class families in North Carolina, a state where one in three adults is obese and one in 10 has diabetes. The researchers followed the families for up to five years and profiled some of them in depth, spending hundreds of hours visiting them in their homes and observing them as they shopped, prepared meals and went about their lives.
Their research challenges the notion, repeated by many nutrition experts, that Americans can reclaim their health and reverse the obesity epidemic if only they would ditch processed foods, get back into the kitchen and make healthy meals from scratch. While that will work for some people, Dr. Bowen and her colleagues argue that it is not a realistic solution for families that have limited time and money. Nor is it necessarily an accurate perception: National surveys show that 48 percent of Americans cook dinner six or seven nights a week, and another 44 percent of people cook two to five nights a week. The data show that low-income families spend more time cooking than wealthier families, and they consume less fast food than middle-class households.
But the researchers found that many families faced an array of obstacles to healthy eating. Some of the families they studied lived in food deserts, far from a decent grocery store, and had to spend hours riding a bus to buy groceries or ask friends and relatives for a ride. Many would run out of money at the end of the month and look for ways to stretch what little food they had. Some did not have reliable stoves and refrigerators, or they lacked pots and pans and other basic kitchen tools. Others turned to their local food pantries, which provide a lot of processed foods that are shelf-stable but high in sodium, sugar and other additives, like breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers, packaged snacks, and canned meats and soups.
With so many hurdles in their way, the researchers found, working class families would often shy away from foods that cost more, spoil quickly or require a lot of preparation, and instead turn to things that they could cook easily, store for a long time and stretch into numerous meals.
“If you’re strapped for cash and running out of food every month like a lot of families did in our study, the cheapest thing you can buy is ramen, hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese,” said Dr. Bowen, an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “We asked everyone in our study what would you buy if you had more money to spend on food, and the most common answer was: ‘Fresh fruit for our kids.’”