Essay: Poverty and Obesity: Introduction the Relationship

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¶ … Poverty and Obesity: Introduction

The relationship between obesity and a number of serious health problems has been well established as has the relationship between obesity and poverty. This literature review is designed to support research into a particular subset of research that examines the relationship between relative poverty and relative affluence as it predicts levels of obesity in children. In particular, it focuses on the relationship between marketing and childhood obesity, a focus that tends not to receive sufficient attention.

Childhood obesity is an important area of research because it is highly prevalent: The distribution of obesity in urban juvenile populations extends the breadth of the country, and indeed across the industrialized world. As new regions of the world -- especially in China -- begin to become more urbanized and more Westernized, the same problem of childhood obesity is also increasing. Thus any research that helps to pinpoint the exact dynamics of childhood obesity will have extremely wide-ranging implications and potential applications.

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A related subfield of research has received far more attention as numerous studies have demonstrated that one of the reasons that poorer children are more likely to be obese is that they (along with the rest of their families) are likely to have far less choices when it comes to food than do children and families in wealthier neighborhoods. Poorer neighborhoods often lack comprehensive grocery stores, forcing residents to rely on convenience stores and other stores with very limited food choices such as the stores attached to gas stations.

Stores like this rarely have fresh fruit or vegetables and even more rarely have basic, staple ingredients such as flour. The lack of basic ingredients forces those families dependent upon such stores to depend not only on food that is generally unhealthy and generally higher in far content but also pushes them towards foods that are more highly marketed. The kinds of foods that are sold in poor neighborhood convenience stores are those that tend to have high-profile marketing campaigns. In other words, the children in such neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to marketing of unhealthy foods: Not only are they young (which makes them especially at risk) nut they have little experience of foods outside of those that they see advertised on billboards and television.

Children in poorer neighborhoods exist in a world in which practically all of the food that they have any knowledge of is highly advertised. To some extent, it is arguable that these children may not at some level even be able to recognize food that they do not first or at least primarily encounter these foods through marketing and advertising (Glanz K & Yaroch AL 2004). This sets the experiences of poor children apart from the experiences of children in relatively wealthier neighborhoods. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the ratio of foods that are heavily marketed to foods that are not heavily marketed is dramatically different for poorer children, a fact that creates a different cognitive universe for food for poorer and richer children (Morland K. et al. 2002).

There is also the fact that food is marketed to poorer children in different ways than it is to wealthier children. A thorough assessment of the ways in which food is made available (economically, psychologically, and emotionally) to poorer children and their families could be extremely useful in helping to reduce obesity rates among poorer children (Laraia BA et al. 2004). The U.S. Census has documented the degree to which poorer children are affected by obesity rates:

• Poor children have higher rates of obesity (around 20% of all poor children) than do non-poor children (around 15%).

• African-American children (21%) and Mexican-American children (23%) have higher rates of obesity than non-Hispanic white children (13%).

• Hispanic and African-American children are more concentrated in socioeconomically distressed neighborhoods than are non-Hispanic white children (O'Hare B & Mather M. 2003)

The marketing of food (as is also true of other commodities) contains four separate elements. These include the following:

Place, which includes not only the geographic location of the stores in each neighborhood where food is sold, but also the type of store in question and the ways in which people have access to those stores -- such as access by bus as opposed to car (Cheadle a et al. 1991)

There is also the food itself -- or the food "product," which includes a wide range of attributes, including the quality of the food itself as well as the ways in which it is packaged. Another way of looking at this is to say that both the inside (the actual food) and the outside (the wrapper and all other physical manifestations of the marketing) (Jetter K & Cassady D. 2006).

Another key element of the way in which food is marketed that has a direct and pervasive effect on the ways in which poor and wealthier children have access to healthy food (which is directly related to the likelihood that they will be obese, although of course there are other factors as well) is price. This too is directly related to the differential ways in which food is marketed to poor and wealthy: Because food in convenience stores that is available to poorer families is highly marketed and therefore highly packaged (and the reverse), it is more expensive per unit. Basic foods, such as fresh fruit, come with little if any packaging, and the lack of a high degree of packaging makes such food cheaper in relative terms than the food that is available to poorer families (Reed J. et al. 2004).

There is, finally, the more active forms of promotion that occur in the kinds of stores that are in poorer neighborhoods. This includes providing compensation to storeowners for more prominent placement of certain products. Given that these store owners or renters are probably themselves relatively poor, they will be susceptible to such offers and are therefore more likely to promote products that add to the problems of the community members, including the problem of childhood obesity.

The result of these factors is an accumulation of problems in terms of access to healthy food and the marketing of unhealthy food, which in turn leads to increased rates of childhood obesity in poor neighborhoods and the relatively lack of such nutritional traps for individuals in wealthier neighborhoods:

A more recent survey in Los Angeles and Sacramento grocery stores found that a two-week supply of healthier foods in these cities costs more on average ($230) than a two-week supply based on the USDA thrifty food plan ($194).The $36 difference is attributable to the higher cost of whole grains, lean ground beef, and skinless poultry. Switching to the healthier food market basket would increase by 30% to 40% the average amount ($2,410) that U.S. low-income consumers spend each year on food.

In an economic analysis of diet health and diet cost, Adam Drewnowski and Nicole Darmon have shown that budget constraints lead people to higher-fat and higher-calorie diets. The authors conclude that the cost associated with prudent diet choices is one likely barrier to healthy eating among poor families. (

The above review of the literature has helped me create a hypothesis that can be tested to investigate one aspect of the growing epidemic of obesity among urban children.


An understanding of the above conditions will allow for further research in to the ways in which food is marketed to poorer and wealthier children. Looking at the precise mechanisms of marketing to poorer children may well lead to better methods of determining exactly what public policy changes would be must helpful in being implemented to ensure that healthier food choices are available to all American children, but especially to those living in poorer neighborhoods who are most… [END OF PREVIEW]

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