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Posted on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 11:23 a.m.

Food for thought: Do poor people prefer junk food?

By Wayne Baker

1112ov Tracie McMillan American Way of Eating cover.jpg
Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing food in America.

America is undergoing a food awakening. From celebrity chefs and the popular Food Network to farmers market, the good food movement, organic farming, and the growing population of foodies, Americans are eating, preparing, thinking and talking about good food like never before. But not everyone gets a seat at the table.

Americans with enough time, money, and energy can buy fresh high-quality organic foods and make the effort to prepare healthy meals. All three ingredients are needed, however, and if one is missing—the time, the money, or the energy—the chances of eating healthy drop.

One of the myths about eating in America is that poor people prefer junk food over healthy food, writes journalist Tracie McMillan in The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

The reasons poverty and unhealthy eating go together have little to do with tastes or preferences or even knowledge. Fresh food tends to be too expensive for those who work for low wages. Typically healthy food is not available in poor neighborhoods. Preparing fresh food takes time, but working long hours leaves little of it for making healthy meals.

What McMillan saw, she writes, was “an abandonment of America’s great promise, implicit in every tale of rising fortunes and opportunity from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama, that it would always feed its citizens well.” She set out to understand the reasons why, working undercover at Applebee’s and the food section of Wal-Mart; she harvested grapes and cut garlic with migrant workers. She worked long hours and lived on low wages, eating the same way that her fellow workers ate. This week, we’ll discuss different insights she gleaned from her year undercover.

Would you call yourself a foodie?

Have we abandoned the promise to feed all citizens well?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.


Sarah Rigg

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 : 1:44 p.m.

When you're on the verge of going hungry, you look for high-calorie food at low cost. You can have almost 1,000 calories from a "stack" of Pringles and get it for around $1 if you catch it on sale or buy it at Big Lots. Or, you can fill up on 1,000 calories of organic fruit and vegetables and beans for a lot more than $1.


Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 5:23 p.m.

"Foodie" is one of the most emasculating terms I've ever heard.