A sobering study released by researchers at Drexel provides more evidence that inequities in our food system present health threats to low-income populations in Philadelphia. Taking samples from almost 400 corner stores and small grocery stores from 2008 to 2010, the researchers found that foods available in less affluent neighborhoods were significantly more likely to be rotten or contaminated. Milk, fruits, and vegetables were more likely to go bad soon after purchase than those sold in more affluent neighborhoods. Ultimately, the study showed that when staples and healthy foods were available in poor neighborhoods, it was often at the cost of food safety.
This isn’t necessarily an insidious finding; people are not deliberately serving contaminated food to the poor. Rather, many stores in low-income neighborhoods seem to simply lack the capacity to store and serve foods the way that stores in middle or high income areas do. Refrigerated items are more likely to sit out longer as smaller staffs work to stock coolers and refrigerators, and profit margins are so thin that many stores may not be able to afford proper refrigeration
These issues of food safety are a part of the larger food access problem in Philadelphia, however work is being done to alleviate these ills. The city government, working with the Food Trust and several other organizations, is addressing healthy food access through the Get Healthy Philly program, which includes funding and capacity building for healthy corner stores and healthy food retail in under served communities.
However, while these efforts are making great strides in improving food access in Philadelphia, Drexel’s study has striking implications for MANNA’s vulnerable clients. While healthy people might get sick from contaminated or spoiled foods, the illnesses are fairly mild and temporary. A person may experience nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, but it will likely be short-lived, and many people won’t even know it was caused by their food. However, for critically ill patients, these food safety issues are far more concerning as a compromised immune system might result in more serious consequences of foodborne illnesses. This is yet more evidence that the critically ill deserve and need carefully prepared home-delivered meals, so that their safety and health can be protected.
In spite of the food injustice emphasized by Drexel’s study, with the many initiatives to build a strong network of healthy food retailers in the city, Philadelphia is moving in the right direction to address the issue. However, at MANNA we also recognize that our clients are particularly vulnerable to the still-present issues in our food system, and we continue to work to safely nourish those who need it most.
This post is by Kelly McGlynn, rising senior at Brown University and former Advocacy & Health Policy Intern at MANNA.