Skinny People Shop at Whole Foods.

cross-posted from U.S. of J.

Researchers at the University of Washington further illustrate the link between poverty and obesity:

The percentage of food shoppers who are obese is almost 10 times higher at low-cost grocery stores compared with upscale markets, a small new study shows.

Researchers say the striking findings underscore poverty as a key factor in America’s growing girth.

In the Seattle area, a region with an average obesity rate of about 20 percent, only about 4 percent of shoppers who filled their carts at Whole Foods Market stores were obese, compared with nearly 40 percent of shoppers at lower-priced Albertsons stores.


“If people wanted a diet to be cheap, they went to one supermarket,” said Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who studies obesity and social class. “If they wanted their diet to be healthy, they went to another supermarket and spent more.”

This study was limited to Seattle, but I’m sure you could replicate its results elsewhere. In my own shopping, I’ve noticed that people shopping at Kroger (the cheaper grocery store in the area) tend to be heavier than those shopping at Harris Teeter, and their carts tended to be heavy on processed and prepared foods. But that isn’t a surprise; the poorer you are, the more likely it is that your diet will be high in calorie dense but nutritionally poor foods, which is a recipe for obesity.

It’s not that healthier ingredients are absent or too expensive — even lower-priced supermarkets have plenty of fresh produce available — it’s that preparing those meals requires more time and energy than is available to most lower-income people. Cooking takes time, and after a long day of hard work in low-wage employment, parents want to relax, and the incredible ease of fast and processed food is a powerful lure. Indeed, if there’s any advantage to lower-income grocery stores Kroger or Wal-Mart, it’s that calorie dense foods — cookies, frozen pizza, Easy Mac — are cheap and readily available.

That said, if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching my friends attempt to navigate the kitchen, it’s that cooking isn’t obvious. Unless you’re familiar with the basics of preparation and cooking, the act of taking a few ingredients — some cornmeal, a bushel of greens, an egg — and making a meal is mystifying. Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge. Moreover, eating habits are generational, and if you grew up in a home where food was prepared from fresh ingredients you’re far more likely to know what to do in a kitchen. By contrast, if you grew up eating processed and prepackaged food, then those are the first things you’ll reach for when you’re on your own.

Which is why I’m not convinced that food taxes and subsidies are enough to make a dent into the nation’s obesity and nutritional crisis. As is the case with most problems, better, more comprehensive education is critical to moving forward. We need to show kids and adults that cooking isn’t hard, and that’s possible to eat well on a limited budget.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Scipio Africanus

    If I could fund a study (I don’t have the ability to actually do it myself), I’d look into whether or not people who eat lots of processed and unhealthy foods now – say, people who are quite grown and probably parents, 25 to 45 – grew up eating that way. Accepting the premise that poorer people eat less healthy,

    “Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge.”

    I don’t buy this. Per the point (it’s a guess, really) I just raised, I think most people born before maybe 1975 or so probably had a mother who cooked more than a little bit, while growing up.

    • April

      “Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge.”

      I don’t buy this. Per the point (it’s a guess, really) I just raised, I think most people born before maybe 1975 or so probably had a mother who cooked more than a little bit, while growing up.

      Agreed. I think the lack of knowledge is generational, to a large degree. Also, most folks I know who can throw down in the kitchen weren’t really rich growing up. Obviously, that’s anecdotal, but I have a hard time believing that the well-off are more likely to know how to cook than the poor. I’d imagine the opposite, actually.

      • Let’s take this a little deeper. Many women have poor self images, low self esteems, and even lower self worth. When you love yourself, you take care of yourself. We’ve passed this on to our daughters, and many times to our sons to a lesser degree. Food for us is more than food, it is our drug of choice, listen to how many of speak of food. I have heard women speak of eating a donut as if it were the equivalent of snorting cocaine or smoking crack, which is to say with alot of guilt and too much self depreciativeness. Get into why we hate ourselves, and you will discover why we treat ourselves and others who look like us horribly. I love the conversation!

  • I agree. Home economics classes still exist, but they’re electives and when I took it they just taught us how to make rice crispy treats. *side-eye*

    Most of my friends can make a few basic things, but they eat out a lot because they don’t want to eat the same five things all the time (and their alternative is ramen soup or Chef Boyardee). What they don’t realize is that if you pick up a cookbook or hit up, you’ll find out that it’s very easy to make the foods that you buy in restaurants like enchiladas, Asian stir fry, etc. The ingredients are simple, but many people don’t realize the power of using different seasonings to transform a dish.

    • flasher702

      “because they don’t want to eat the same five things all the time”. And this same attitude is adopted by people who can’t really afford to have that kind of perceived variety in their diet and also eat healthfully. Seems like just another example about how “living within your means” doesn’t seem to have a place in our culture no matter where you sit on the class scale. 50 years ago this kind of variety of diet was impossible. Now it seems like almost everyone thinks they’re entitled to it even if they can’t pay their rent (I’m a landlord, you you get a little firsthand anecdotal evidence here).

      @OP I’ve never seen the kind of awful grocery stores that G.D. described but all of the Albertsons here in Seattle are well stocked with fresh produce. Maybe a tiny bit wilty at times but no bugs. Also, frozen veggies are usually cheaper, are halfway prepared, are often more nutritious than something that’s been sitting out at room temp for days, and are more appropriate for poorer people and/or smaller family units who need to avoid waste anyway. Eating healthfully on a budget is definitely possible. It’s actually cheaper than the junk food that poor people often buy instead. Chicken is $1/pound. Veggies are $1/pound. Rice, Oat Meal, and Pinto Beans are practically free. These things are available at almost any grocery store. You can cook chicken, veggies, and oatmeal in the microwave. Everyone basically knows this is possible and it’s pretty hard to burn things in the microwave. Everyone has “access” to this knowledge (internet, library, ask your mom?). Just try convincing them to do it though.

      Or how about this example: for about twice the price, still under $3 a meal, you can have prepared frozen meatballs, organic prepared frozen green beans, pre-shredded cheese, and preggo spaghetti sauce and warm it all up in the microwave to have a complete, healthy meal without ever having to deal with raw meat, cooking utensils of any kind, or unwashed vegetables(it’s what I had for lunch and dinner today). Everyone knows they can do this. The stuff is sitting right there on the store shelves staring at them. The problem isn’t educational it’s cultural.

      Many popular recipes cooked from scratch do take a long time and education could help to teach people about easier recipes and shortcuts but that’s like teaching people to build a bridge across a river that’s only 6 inches deep.

      @G.D. You should have eaten those bugs. Bonus protein for your workouts 😉

  • I’m not sure how true it is that even cheaper supermarkets carry quality fresh produce. When I lived in Bed-Stuy years back, the Pathmark carried lettuce that was wilted or unwashed. (I’d regularly find bugs on my lettuce when I got home, and would have to toss it out.) The other produce wasn’t much better.

    But also, it’s not true that people have *access* to supermarkets. I’ve touched on this before, but there are large swaths of many cities that don’t have supermarkets. ( As of last year, Detroit didn’t have a single chain supermarket within its city limits.) People may not cook, but in a lot of places it’s because they couldn’t.)

    • It’s worth noting that I have no idea what urban grocery stores or supermarkets are like. I’m mostly speaking from my experience living in rural and suburban Virginia. Where I’m from, fresh vegetables aren’t hard to find, even if you are shopping in the low-end Wal-Mart.

      • I’m going to say something potentially controversial: The Wal-Mart super center was the best thing to happen to my hometown food-wise. We had grocery stores before, but the fresh produce was limited and stuff like fresh fish was non-existent. The Wal-Mart there now has a grocery store with tons of produce and a lot of variety. I never saw asparagus and plantains growing up. And now they have fish that’s flesh isn’t white and meant to be fried. I hate Wal-Mart as much as the next person, but on this score, it’s good.

      • Since this study is based in Seattle (my hometown), I’d say the bigger problems are not knowing how to prepare food, and the cheapness and convenience of unhealthy food. Usually the problem in urban areas are access to grocery stores, but even in the poorest Seattle neighborhoods, there are plenty of great grocery stores that are right on bus lines. Furthermore, our farmer’s markets take EBT cards.

        It’s just a matter of learning how long produce can store without spoiling, cooking it, etc. (Not that I’d know. My old place was within walking distance of FIVE grocery stores AND a farmer’s market and if I had to cook to save my life, I’d starve to death. I’ll see how long I can ride out this youthful metabolism)

      • no, i feel you. but food deserts are a real problem, and I don’t know if Seattle is a good example of the availability of healthy food options elsewhere.

    • April

      The Pathmark on Atlantic? Still terrible.

      Re: produce: I read one article regarding fresh v. frozen or canned veggies (forgive me if it was linked here; I forgot where I found it) that suggested that it may be limiting to focus only on fresh veggies and fruits, rather than frozen or canned. I’d second that. Frozen produce actually is picked in its optimal state, so it is probably better than the wilted or bug-ridden “fresh” stuff at the low-end grocery. Even canned veggies, with all the sodium content, is better than nothing–and at least some of that salt can be rinsed off.

      But, anyway, yes, food deserts are a significant problem, as well as the number of people who really don’t know how to put a meal together (plus folks who don’t feel like it after work–like me!). I can’t imagine home ec coming back any time soon, though, with all the onerous requirements placed on school districts these days. Plus, there’s the issue of facilities.

  • sasha

    this post is the truth. i grew up eating canned/processed/frozen food. it definitely takes money,time and energy to buy and cook fresh food from scratch. i grew up with my grandmother who is in her 60s, poor and has poor health, so we bought food that we could afford;the nutritional value of it didn’t factor into what we bought. even now that i live on my own, i still buy canned or frozen vegetables instead of fresh food cause i don’t really know how to cook fresh veggies;i’m trying to get better at that though.

    food availability is one of the issues i’m most passionate about; i’m continually researching about the correlation between income and obesity and food deserts.

    • It’s so true about canned vegetables being the norm, it was for us too. I’m not sure there is anything more gross than canned peas.

      • Leigh

        canned wax beans

      • Semi off-topic: Have you seen “One Big Fat Happy Family” on TLC? The dad, who is in his 40s, had only seen canned spinach and had no idea what it looked like fresh.

        Then again I fail at cooking and only know what food looks like when it’s done, so I can’t judge.

      • shani-o

        But canned tomatoes and canned corn are great inventions.

        • Darth Paul


      • Fanon

        I love canned peas. The La Ceour very young peas are like that. Stop hatin’.

  • Home cooked food does not automatically mean healthy.

    I’m in the age range @Scipio mentioned and I can say I grew up not eating the healthiest of foods, even though my mom cooked pretty much every day. It’s the type of foods we cooked. She’s southern, so everything had huge amounts of butter, was fried to high heaven and we at a lot of Kraft Mac n Cheese (a favorite of mine still today). We had sweet potato pie and pound cake on special occasions.

    When I got out into the world, I could fry a mean piece of chicken. But I didn’t know how to make healthy meals. It wasn’t until my mom got cancer and diabetes that we all started looking at our diets. Now, she fries less and watches what she eats. We always ate balanced meals with veggies, but now, we care a lot more about the types of meat and the amount of sugars in the foods we eat. I still shop at the cheaper stores, but I buy leaner cuts of meat, less processed food and lots of fruits and veggies.

    I think the study points to the fact that a lot of this has to do with access and awareness. At the stores in my neighborhood growing up, yes we had vegetables and fruits and whatnot, but the meats that were on sale were more likely to be neck bones or chitlins than organic corn fed beef or free range chicken. In most low income areas, you see KFC, BK, McDs, Pizza Hut, Church’s, etc. If you go to a neighborhood with a Whole Foods, you’re more likely to find healthier fast food alternatives. And if you’re like my family, you think you’re feeding your family balanced meals, not taking into account that fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and creamed corn, while balance, aren’t the healthiest foods you could eat in the long run.

  • belmontmedina

    To touch on the issue of access, one of the study’s authors said that Seattle is unusual in that it doesn’t really have food deserts- that would give me pause before applying the conclusions to a wider area (the study itself specifically cautions against applying the conclusions to other places). Also, let’s not forget that access is not a purely urban problem, it’s a rural one too, especially for the poor and elderly.

    Secondly, the other point of the study is that access isn’t enough, price is a huge driver for shoppers- either paying more because they believe store xxx to be of higher quality or going farther because store abc provides the most value for the money. Granted, these are the concerns of two different socioeconomic groups, but it would suggest to me that food taxes and subsidies are a good way to go. Yes, people may still choose not so healthy foods, but it seems to me that removing “I can’t afford it” as an excuse for not eating healthily would go a long way.

  • Of course it they are. I think people shopping at Whole Foods or similar stores are making more of a conscious effort to choose exactly what they put in their body regardless of the cost.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate

  • Courtney

    I’m not sure that the culprit here is how we were raised, how much money, time & energy we have, or how good the produce section in our local grocery is. I was raised eating pop tarts and white rice, my family spends only 250.00 (for 4 of us) on food thanks to our small income, and with an infant and 2 year old, we’re tired and stressed. We have only one grocery store in town, and it’s not great when it comes to fresh foods. However, we cringe at the thought of processed foods and we use our small food allowance on whole foods and ingredients for our nightly dinner. We never eat out.

    I think this is a cultural issue. Right now, eating healthy (organic, low-fat, from scratch, etc) is a priority and status symbol in middle and upper middle class families. Even families like mine who don’t make a lot of money but run in white collar circles get the message that this is the only way to go. In a way, it’s another way to make families feel inadequate. But I suppose it’s one of the only (inadvertantly) healthy examples of keeping up with the Jones’. For what it’s worth, I’m grateful that my husband and I had the motivation to spend our 20’s learning how to cook healthy meals for our family.

    I think that the culture of eating has to change in the rest of the populations the way it seems to have changed in white suburbia. If it’s the norm in your group of friends, it’s not too hard to learn how to cook and to buy health (frozen) foods. I hope Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity will have an impact on other cultural groups.

  • redredrobin

    When I found out that Harris Teeter didn’t allow unions in its stores, I told the management I wouldn’t be shopping there anymore. There aren’t any WalMarts near me but I wouldn’t shop @ one because they offend me so much. I realize I can vote with my wallet since I live in a big city. I realize this wasn’t the subject of the article, but I think there are probably more important things to consider about grocery shopping than where the fat people go. BTW, does that mean that fat is contagious @ that supermarket? I mean, what are we really supposed to learn from this piece? Is there anybody who doesn’t know that Whole Foods is also known as Whole Paycheck? Yeah, good food is a whole lot more expensive than junk food. Anyone not clear about that? Now what?

    • i admire the skill with which you’ve missed the point here. well done.

  • SkepMod

    it’s that preparing those meals requires more time and energy than is available to most lower-income people.

    Nonsense. I saute a lb of carrots and green beans every bit as quickly as a box of mac and cheese takes to make. The problem is ignorance. Ask around and you will see that people who eat fast food all the time don’t know what they are eating.

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