Why do poor children have poor diets?

Junk food
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There is a huge but simple piece of the puzzle that doesn't get much airplay.

At TreeHugger we’ve written a lot about that sad state of the Standard American Diet – it’s an issue that effects individual health and has a huge (as in negative) impact on the economy and the planet. And with an epidemic of food deserts combined with the easy availability of cheap calorically-dense processed food, it often boils down to a matter of income. As Lloyd pointed out, Michael Pollan once wrote, “the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth," noting that a dollar buys you 1200 calories in potato chips, but only 250 calories of carrots.

Add kids into the mix and it gets even more challenging ... but it just takes some effort, right? I know I'm not alone when I've thought: “I got my kids to eat carrots, anyone can, how can people fail their children like this?" Cooking doesn't have to be hard, cheap healthy food can be found, this isn't rocket science.

But once I read A Hidden Cost to Giving Kids Their Vegetables by Caitlin Daniel in The New York Times, I felt like such a jerk. Parents can be judgmental of other parents, it somehow comes with the turf, even despite some of our best intentions – and having written so much about food and cooking and health, I admit that I slipped into the judgey mommy camp. Forgive me Michael Pollan for I have sinned!

Here’s Daniel's take in a nutshell:

1. Kids are naturally picky, most of them approach novel foods with stubborn skepticism, it generally takes eight to 15 attempts for them to warm to more adventurous flavors. Even things like broccoli can be shocking to a young palate.

2. Families on limited incomes simply can’t afford eight to 15 failed attempts – it's too expensive.

Daniel spent over two years studying 73 Boston families – both affluent and poor and everyone in between – to find out how people decided on what to feed their children. She writes:

For the poor parents I met, children’s food rejections cost too much. To avoid risking waste, these parents fall back on their children’s preferences. As the mother of the 3 year old said: “Trying to get him to eat vegetables or anything like that is really hard. I just get stuff that he likes, which isn’t always the best stuff.” Like many children, her son prefers foods that are bland and sweet. Unable to afford the luxury of meals he won’t consume, she opts for mac and cheese.

I met plenty of poor parents who wished that their children liked healthier food. But developing their children’s palates has hidden costs. When I asked her about offering cauliflower 10 times to shape her son’s tastes, a poor mother from a town outside Boston said: “No. No. That’s a lot of wasted food.” This mother faces an uncomfortable choice: She can experiment and risk an empty cupboard, or she can make her food last by serving what her son likes, even if it’s not the healthiest and even if she feels guilty about it.

Wealthier moms whom she studied didn’t consider the cost of food rejections; the poorest of the parents worried that if children rejected food, another family member may have to go without.

To which I think, there has got to be ways around this. Daniel tells of one mom who really tried – employing cheap but healthy staples like rice and beans with discount vegetables. But when her kids wouldn’t eat this food, it became a financial burden and she resorted to the more-processed food that the kids would gobble up.

Daniel thinks that there are ways to overcome this vicious cycle. Acquiring new tastes can happen when schools introduce kids to wholesome foods through “gardening, experience-based nutrition education and healthy school meals.” Though these programs require funding. She adds:

Pediatricians and nutrition educators can also suggest how to reduce waste. Recommendations could include offering foods that are shelf-stable and easily divisible, like frozen fruits and vegetables, so parents can offer small amounts repeatedly without generating excessive waste. Parents’ preferences are also part of the solution. When parents eat foods from apple to zucchini, they can offer children a bite with less risk of waste. Cooking and food education classes can help to shape parents’ tastes, too.

Getting kids to eat well is a struggle for most of us. Yes, some kids seem to emerge from the womb with a taste for pho and kale (providing all kinds of opportunity for tiresome parental boasting), but most kids need coaxing and consistency and exposure to new things. It takes dedication, but it also takes money, or at least resources to help introduce low-income kids to the bigger world of food out there. Fostering healthy habits isn’t cheap, there’s a hidden cost that many of may not have previously considered.

As Daniel concludes, “when we think about whether families can afford a healthy diet, we must keep this hidden cost in mind. Let’s start by talking less about how the poor are failing and more about how to help families provide the food their children need.” I'm game.

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