Fast food in low-income areas contributes to obesity


Braelyn Coulter/The Cougar

While driving along Scott Street hoping that there is an available parking space, one will notice the assortment of fast food restaurants that line the street, including Burger King, Popeye’s and Wendy’s. Fast food restaurants are a common fixture for many — passing by them every day, one may not stop and think about why they’re located where they are.

The actuality is that fast food restaurants have a higher density in low income areas, and the availability and affordability of this unhealthy food leads to high obesity rates. In fact, Texas is ranked the 13th most obese state in the U.S. with 29.8 percent of adults being obese.

If Texas is serious about lowering that percentage, it is imperative to examine the impact of fast food restaurants in urban areas in terms of density and proximity.

While some argue that obesity is a result of poor choices made by an individual, there are factors that influence these decisions that may be out of an individual’s control. Low income communities tend to lack supermarkets and may not provide adequate safety for exercise, causing residents to live unhealthy lifestyles that put them at greater risk for obesity.

Lorraine Reitzel, assistant professor in the Department of Health Disparities Research at MD Anderson Medical Center, conducted a study of African American adults to explore the relationship between body mass index and proximity to fast food restaurants.

According to the findings of the study, African Americans who lived closer to fast food restaurants had higher BMIs. The findings also reveal that “on average there were 2.5 fast food restaurants within a half mile, 4.5 within a mile, 11.4 within 2 miles and 71.3 within 5 miles of participants’ homes.”

“Fast food is specifically designed to be affordable, appealing and convenient,” Reitzel said. “People are pressed for time and they behave in such a way that will cost them the least amount of time to get things done, and this may extend to their food choices.”

For those who live in low income communities, transportation may be an issue or time may not be in abundance, therefore the proximity of fast food restaurants may be the easiest way to get food on the table. The marketing tactics used by fast food restaurants in lower income communities also contribute to high consumption of fast food in low income communities.

From an advertising standpoint, appealing to children can help boost sales, as children will beg their parents to take them to a fast food restaurant

Economics senior Sree Karanam said that children eating this way will become a habit when they grow older.

“As a kid, you want to have fun and eat greasy food, and it’s not that bad,” Karanam said. “It’s when you get used to it and it will become a habit (that’s when it becomes dangerous).”

Financially, these fast food companies are bringing in a lot of money by selling this unhealthy but accessible food; however, this type of marketing does raise ethical questions. Hotel and restaurant management senior Trisha Tebo said this type of marketing is an effective business strategy.

“People want to be healthy, but it’s too expensive,” Tebo said. “When you’re in a low income area and you have to work longer, fast food is an option because it’s fast and cheap.”

Fast food restaurants choose to open more locations in lower income communities to capitalize on the lack of other food options. Jennifer Harris, the director of Marketing Initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said that “regulating marketing in fast food companies is the only way to solve this problem.”

In Houston, there are low income communities classified as food deserts. The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.”


Sonic and Whatabuger are just a few of the fast food options available near the intersection of Old Spanish Trail and Scott Street, an area that surrounds some of Houston’s most impoverished areas. | Braelyn Coulter/The Cougar

Areas in Houston designated as food deserts include Sunnyside, Kashmere and Denver Harbor. To combat the food deserts in Houston, the city of Houston and organizations that promote healthy eating are putting forth effort to provide fresh, healthy food in these areas and other food deserts.

Mayor Anise Parker created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011 in partnership with Council Member Stephen Costello, The Food Trust and Children at Risk to address obesity and areas lacking access to healthy food.

Parker helped fund an initiative to increase access to healthy eating by partnering with Recipe for Success, an organization dedicated to educating children and parents about nutrition. The organization has a food truck that travels to areas that lack access to healthy foods by selling reduced price fruits and vegetables.

Parker has also given Pyburn’s owner, John Vuong, financial assistance to open up a new grocery store called Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods in South Union, which is another low income community considered to be a food desert. The store will be opening in the first quarter of 2015.

“I think the problem is that healthy food in general is more expensive,” Tebo said. “They need to trace it back to the industry that grows the food. They need to cut down the price for everyone. It will become a lot more accessible.”

Having these initiatives in place is helpful, but there is need for initiatives with greater impact. One of the best things to do for residents in these communities is to continue opening more supermarkets that are easier for residents to get to and sell fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].

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