We often hear about how lack of access to recommended cancer screening can delay diagnosis and treatment of cancer among our nation’s poor, worsening likely outcomes. However, studies also suggest that the environment in which our poorest live may promote lifestyles that increase risk of developing cancer rather than protecting against it.
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A diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in fatty meats and “empty calorie” snacks is a vital step to lower cancer risk. Yet foods most available to those who live in poverty may be just the opposite.
A study presented at the July 2006 American Institute for Cancer Research conference on diet and cancer showed that access to healthier choices in grocery stores and fast food restaurants in a low-income rural city was more limited than in a high-income rural city.
Another study, published in 2006, looked at available foods in areas surrounding a food pantry — a place that provides groceries to individuals and families in need. The study showed that 48 percent of almost 3,985 food pantry clients in one California city were not within walking distance of a store selling fresh produce. This was noted as a concern because food pantries seldom receive fresh produce.
Lack of refrigeration
Low-income residents are also more likely to have limited refrigeration and cooking equipment. When access to fresh produce is limited, and facilities for storing and preparing it are also limited, people are more likely to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient snack foods and boxed dinner items, according to researchers. One study among urban poor concluded that education programs were needed, not so much to kindle desire for healthful foods, but to help people deal with lack of refrigerated storage and cooking equipment.
Studies show that strategies to save money, such as buying store-brand products and buying in quantity, are often not possible where rural, low-income families shop.
Families with limited income are also more likely to choose fatty cuts of meat and poultry, which are usually cheaper than leaner cuts, and smaller amounts of fruits and vegetables. Children’s dietary staples are often nonperishables, such as salty snacks, candy and soft drinks.
Simply increasing the availability of healthy food may increase its consumption. In a study that gave vouchers for fruits and vegetables to young mothers in a Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in Los Angeles, 90 percent of the vouchers were redeemed.
How to help
Communities are working to improve the availability of healthy foods in a variety of ways, including community gardens, farmers’ markets and vans that distribute fresh produce. Food recovery or “gleaning” programs can also improve access to nutritional foods. These programs collect and redistribute foods that would have potentially gone to waste.
Recovery programs include collecting leftover crops from fields, perishable produce from retail sources and prepared foods from restaurants. Several organizations, such as America’s Second Harvest and Foodchain, coordinate delivering the recovered food to local distribution sources. Businesses can participate by donating excess prepared foods — from the cafeteria or special events — to recovery programs. Companies or individuals can donate transportation, maintenance work, and computer services that these programs need. Those who want to become involved in food gleaning programs can call 1-800-GLEAN-IT or visit the Food Recovery Web site.
Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
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