There’s a popular narrative about poor families and fast food: They eat more of it than anybody else. It’s dangled as evidence for the high rate of obesity among poorer Americans — and talked about even by some of the country’s foremost voices on food.
But there’s a problem with this narrative. It’s not true.
New data released by the Centers for Disease Control show America’s love for fast food is surprisingly income-blind. Well-off kids, poor kids and all of those in between tend to get about the same percentage of their calories from fast food, according to a survey of more than 5,000 people. More precisely, though, it’s the poorest kids who tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets and french fries.
Children born to families living just above the poverty line and below get roughly 11.5 percent of their calories from fast food. For everyone else, the portion is closer to 13 percent.
Surprisingly, the better-off children between ages 2 and 11 years lead the pack. The average percentage of calories coming from fast food for kids with working and middle class parents is 9.1 percent. But poor kids only get 8 percent of their calories from fast food.
For teenagers, it’s those born to the poorest families, once again, who rely on fast food the least.
The data offer sobering insight into America’s seemingly unshakeable love for fast food. More than a third of all children and adolescents living in the country still eat some form of fast food on any given day, a number which hasn’t budged in decades, according to the CDC.
And many children are getting alarmingly high proportions of their diet from chicken nuggets and french fries. About a quarter of all kids in the United States get 25 percent of their calories from fast food. And 12 percent of kids get more than 40 percent of their calories from fast food
The data also help to discredit the notion that fast food — or, at the very least, unhealthy food — only preys on the poor. The concept of food deserts, lower income areas where healthy food is scarce or expensive or both, has given rise to the idea that poorer populations rely on fast food out of necessity and convenience.
While there’s evidence income does appear to affect the relative nutritional value of foods people eat — food stamp participants, for instance, tend to procure the same amount of calories as everyone else but from substantially less healthy foods — there doesn’t seem to be the same proof that gap is attributable to fast food.