Wasted food, wasted money: Why some poor families can’t afford to eat healthy

A Harvard sociologist looked at how 73 Boston-area parents shop for groceries. What she found was an oft-overlooked cost of trying to eat well.

It costs money to eat healthy—as much as an added $1.50 a day compared to an unhealthy diet, according to the Harvard School of Public Health—but there’s another hidden expense that could make eating healthy even tougher for lower-income families.

A recently published study in the journal Social Science & Medicine, by Harvard sociology doctoral student Caitlin Daniel, shows that, in order to minimize waste, lower-income families are less likely to give their kids new, healthy foods.

The “waste’’ comes from kids’ initial displeasure with new food: according to data cited in the study, children may refuse unfamiliar food 8 to 15 times before accepting it.

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Instead of continuing to buy fresh veggies, which will be continually wasted by kids, lower-income families opt for things like fast food, both for convenience and the reliability that their kids will actually it eat. As The Atlantic points out, wealthier kids tend to eat healthier, and this could be a reason why.

The cost of wasted healthy food can add up and shift the entire food-shopping patterns of low-income families, according to Daniel.

Basically, richer parents can afford to keep trying—and subsequently keep wasting—healthy food, whereas lower-income families tend to resort to what they know their kid will actually eat, Daniel found.

This sets the table for unhealthy eating habits going forward.

Daniel interviewed 73 Boston-area parents from a range of economic backgrounds about their grocery-shopping habits, questioning them for about two hours each and following along on their shopping trips. (Though Daniel acknowledged that her presence could have influenced their shopping decisions, she noted that three participants shoplifted, even though they knew she was watching.)

Colleen, a low-income white mother Daniel interviewed, brought up her concern of food waste immediately, Daniel wrote.

“I get my food stamps on the 5th and I try to make them last for a month, but that’s really difficult, because toddlers waste a lot of food,’’ Colleen said, according to the paper. “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.’’

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Sometimes low-income parents splurged on fruits after learning that their kids already tried, and liked, the snack at school. To Daniel, this suggests that schools, daycares and other organizations have the potential to foster healthy eating habits in young children.

Though this data is qualitative, it does show that parents of different economic backgrounds do have different perspectives on food waste and feeding their kids. Low-income parents told Daniel they wanted to serve “real’’ food, but out of necessity stick to dependable treats “such as frozen burritos and Hot Pockets.’’ Higher-income families feel bad about the waste when their kids don’t eat the healthy snacks they pack — but more because of the principle than the money spent.

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