Right now in America there are 13.5 million low-income people who live more than a mile from a supermarket, and more than 2 million don't have access to a vehicle. [i] In these neighborhoods, food typically comes from fast food chains, convenience stores and drug stores, which often means decreased access to fresh fruits or vegetables and higher prices. Poor diets and obesity have been associated with these so-called "food deserts," where obesity rates can be five times higher than in communities with access to fresh, healthy foods. [ii]
Food deserts exist mostly in urban environments, although there are many rural towns that lack access to fresh produce and healthy food. This cycle of poor nutrition impacts people of all ages and races, from individuals to families. People of color, however, are disproportionately affected compared to those in white communities. [iii] Underserved communities have been subjected to economic and environmental racism for decades, which makes the term "food desert" misleading because it implies that this is a natural phenomenon and not a result of marginalization and exploitation. Consequently, millions of food dollars are drained from low-income communities as people travel out of their neighborhoods to spend money on non-packaged produce. [iv]
Most food literature on underserved communities focuses on poor nutritional quality of canned and pre-packaged food. Chemicals found in food packaging, however, are also harmful to our health. One of those chemicals is bisphenol A, or BPA. If it sounds familiar, it should. This chemical, banned from baby bottles and sippy cups nationwide, remains in use to line food cans. Intended as a protective barrier between the metal and the can's contents, BPA can actually leach into the food we eat. The effects of leaching BPA are likely most detrimental for pregnant women, babies and children.
BPA acts like estrogen in our body, and hundreds of laboratory studies have linked it with an increased risk for obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, early-onset puberty, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and altered development of the brain and immune system. [v] [vi]
People living in underserved communities have been found to have higher levels of BPA in their blood relative to the rest of the population. [vii] [viii] One possible explanation is greater reliance on canned foods that are often less expensive and more readily available. Could higher rates of obesity in food deserts in part be caused by BPA? In lab studies, BPA was found to change metabolism and predispose animals to gain weight, [ix] even when they eat the same amount as their unexposed counterparts. [x]
Obesity is a health problem, and obese people are at a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer (the most common form) as well as the risk of a more advanced breast cancer diagnosis in African American women. [xi] [xii] Additionally, scientific studies associate greater body fatness in girls with early-onset puberty, [xiii] a recognized risk factor for breast cancer. [xiv]
Not only is BPA linked to obesity, but the chemical also has been shown in laboratory studies to increase risk of developing breast cancer directly. [xv] [xvi]
If a higher risk of obesity and breast cancer weren't troublesome enough, studies show that BPA exposure could increase the risk of developing insulin-resistant (Type 2) diabetes, [xvii] and that food is a major source of BPA. [xviii] This is especially important for pregnant women to know, as exposure to BPA may not only put mothers at risk, but their children may be more likely to develop obesity and diabetes later in life.
Given the health issues already present in vulnerable populations living in underserved communities, as well as the abundant number of scientific studies showing clear links between BPA and diseases afflicting these communities, it is time to eliminate our exposure to dangerous chemicals found in food packaging.
Individually, people should avoid eating canned food containing BPA when possible. The Breast Cancer Fund provides tips for avoiding BPA in canned food. Some suggestions include soaking dry beans, buying frozen or fresh vegetables, choosing soups or tomatoes sold in Tetra Paks (cardboard cartons) or glass, replacing canned fruit with dried, fresh or frozen fruit, and trying to grow your own produce or joining a community garden if possible.
Unfortunately we can't just shop our way out of the problem. We need systemic change. The Breast Cancer Fund's Cans Not Cancer campaign is calling on manufacturers to immediately remove BPA in cans and replace it with a safer alternative. The campaign's list of what manufacturers are doing to comply with these demands shows that some companies are beginning to move toward BPA-free cans.
Pressuring markets to change is one part of the solution, but we need to make sure we are addressing underlying inequities as well.
The overwhelming presence of BPA and its negative effects on health highlight the need for equitable models of healthy food distribution in food deserts in order to decrease risk of obesity, diabetes, and breast cancer. Increased public transportation in low-income communities, bringing in fresh produce, and/or incentivizing grocery stores to establish in or near these neighborhoods are all ways to improve access to healthy food.
And it's not too late for the United States to join countries around the world that are calling for bans on BPA. These bans can protect everyone who may not have the option to completely avoid canned foods. By eliminating BPA and other harmful chemicals from food packaging, we will eliminate a major source of exposure for all people, regardless of income or where they live.
France's recent ban on BPA in all food containers, beginning in 2015, is a prime example of legislative reform to protect all citizens. If European nations can act to remove BPA from food, surely we can too.
Our food system must start putting people first, in every step of production and distribution. Healthy, safe food is a basic human right, and income should not be a determining factor for how many toxic chemicals we consume. Join us now as we work together to help create a fair and just food system for all.
Written with Gretchen Lee Salter, Senior Program and Policy Manager, Breast Cancer Fund
i. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences." Report to Congress. 2009.
ii. Walker RE, Keane CR, Burke JG. Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature. Health Place. 2010.
iii. Holt-Giménez E, Wang Y (2011). Reform or Transformation? The Pivotal Role of Food Justice in the U.S. Food Movement. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, 5(1), 83-102.
iv. Weissbourd R, Berry C. The market potential of inner-city neighborhoods: Filling the information gap. Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, the Brookings Institution. 1999.
v. Ayyanan A, Laribi O, Schuepbach-Mallepell S, Schrick C, Gutierrez M, Tanos T, ... Brisken C (2011). Perinatal exposure to bisphenol a increases adult mammary gland progesterone response and cell number. Molecular Endocrinology, 25(11), 1915-1923.
vi. Vandenberg LN, Maffini M, Schaeberle C, Ucci A, Sonnenschein C, Rubin B, & Soto A (2008). Perinatal exposure to the xenoestrogen bisphenol-A induces mammary intraductal hyperplasias in adult CD01 mice. Reprod Toxicol, 26, 210-219.
vii. LaKind J, Naiman D (2011). Daily Intake of Bisphenol A and Potential Sources of Exposure: 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 21, 272-279. DOI 10.1038/jes.2010.9.
viii. Calafat A, Ye X, Wong L, Reidy J, Needham L (2008). Exposure of the U.S. Population to Bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-Octylphenol: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect, 116 (1): 39-44.
ix. Holtcamp 2012. Obesogens: An environmental link to obesity. Environ Health Perspect, 120(2): a62-a68.
x. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families obesity factsheet: http://www.saferchemicals.org/PDF/resources/obesity_factsheet.pdf
xi. WCRF/AICR (World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research). 2007. "Food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective." Washington, DC: AICR.
xii. AICR (World Cancer Research Fund American Institute for Cancer Research). 2010. "Food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective - Continuous Update Project." Washington, DC: AICR. http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=21674
xiii. Biro et al. (2010). Pubertal assessment method and baseline characteristics in a mixed longitudinal study of girls. Pediatrics, 126(3): e583-e590.
xiv. Ma et al. (2006). Reproductive factors and breast cancer risk according to joint estrogen and progesterone receptor status: A meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Breast Cancer Res, 8(4):R43.
xv. Watson CS, Bulayeva NN, Wozniak AL, Finnerty CC (2005). Xenoestrogens at picomolar to nanomolar concentrations trigger membrane estrogen receptor-alpha-mediated Ca2+ fluxes and prolactin release in GH3/B6 pituitary tumor cells. Environ Health Perspect, 113:431-439.
xvi. Lozada KW, Keri RA (2011). Bisphenol A Increases Mammary Cancer Risk in Two Distinct Mouse Models of Breast Cancer. Biol Reprod, 85(3):490-7.
xvii. Alonso-Magdalena P, Morimoto S, Ripoll C, Fuentes E, Nadal A (2006). The estrogenic effect of bisphenol A disrupts the pancreatic ß-cell function in vivo and induces insulin resistance. Environ Health Perspect, 114: 106-112.
xviii. Schecter A, Malik N, Haffner D et al. (2010). Bisphenol A (BPA) in U.S. Food. Environmental Science and Technology, 44: 9425-9430.