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. "[J]unk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories," wrote Mark Bittman for The New York Times in 2011
But there’s a problem with saying that poor people like fast food better than others. It’s not true.
New data, released by the Centers for Disease Control, show that America's love for fast food is surprisingly income blind. Well-off kids, poor kids, and all 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 that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries.
As shown in the chart above, 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—those between the ages of 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 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 impenetrable 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 that 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 that gap is attributable to fast food.
Child obesity, though it has fallen off in recent years, is still historically high in the United States. American kids are far more likely to be overweight than those living in most other countries. The epidemic has affected poorer children disproportionately, but it would be foolish to overlook the fact that roughly 12 percent of high income children are obese. The deterioration of the American diet hasn't helped. But nor has kids's sustained love for fast food in this country.
Fast food remains a problem for the whole of American youth. Children, independent of socioeconomic status, are bombarded with advertisements for fast food. The industry spends billions of dollars each year on marketing, much of which is used to target children and teenagers. A 2012 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that kids were seeing between three to five fast food ads on television every day.
And those commercials appear to be working. On all children.
Rich parents might roll their eyes at Big Macs and french fries, but it's their kids who like them most.