Having worked in low-income communities for thirty-five years, I often felt the kind of frustration I experienced late one night in Hartford, Connecticut. I was standing behind a young, very pregnant African-American mother and her severely overweight son as she purchased cigarettes, sweets, potato crisps, Pepsi-Cola and nothing else. My reaction was visceral as I wrestled down an urge to rip those things from her hands and admonish her for all the terrible things she was doing to her body, her unborn baby and her child.

Unfortunately, I’m too polite to engage in such public displays of emotion, but my liberal tolerance for self-destructive behaviour has been tested on occasions like these. Normally, I try to avoid glib excuses (“The poor screw themselves, the rich screw everybody else”), pat explanations (“We all make bad choices some of the time”), and the relativistic arguments of the politically correct (“Black Americans should be able to choose whatever they want without judgement”).

After taking a deep breath, I try instead to reflect quietly on encounters with irresponsible behaviour to better understand the relationship between individual circumstances, personal frailties and a host of environmental influences. The more I have done this, the more convinced I have become that yes, diet-related illness such as obesity and diabetes is as much a function of our failed food economy as it is a matter of personal behaviour. But the deeper your experience takes you into poor communities, the more obvious it becomes that the social and economic forces bearing down on the most vulnerable are so powerful that it would take enormous individual strength to overcome them.

Our young mother lives in a ‘food desert’ – a place that has been abandoned by the supermarket industry and rapaciously conquered by convenience food stores and fast-food restaurants. As a result, affordable and healthy food like fruits and vegetables is virtually unavailable, but greasy hamburgers, fried chicken and gooey pizza can be found on every street corner. During my tenure as head of the non-profit Hartford Food System, I witnessed the wholesale flight of supermarkets from one of the nation’s poorest cities, an action that was repeated thousands of times over in hundreds of cities and rural areas across America.

What I have always found fascinating about this problem is that not only is the food industry culpable for creating food deserts, but it has also tried to blame the victims of its irresponsible corporate behaviour. “Big Food”, as it is now called, frames the problem in such a way that our poor mother is made out as the irresponsible one, so her likely health problems will be her fault. In an uncanny resemblance to Big Tobacco, Big Food, according to a wonderful paper by Kelly Brownell of Yale University’s Rudd Center, has engaged in a framing game that focuses on personal responsibility as the cause of the nation’s unhealthy diet. Brownell says that Big Food raises fears that government action will usurp personal freedom, and goes on to vilify its critics with epithets such as “food police”. Big Tobacco, of course, used similar tactics to extend its legacy of human slaughter for decades longer than it would have if it had been brought under the yoke of regulation sooner.

In addition to an unhealthy food environment and the manipulating hand of the industrial food system, poverty and one of its consequences, food insecurity, create another food gap that affects over 40 million Americans. This is the number of people the United States Department of Agriculture identified in 2007 as facing periodic uncertainty as to where their next meal will come from; a figure that is bound to rise thanks to the deep recession. With limited income and few job prospects, our mother is choosing to eat inexpensive, high-calorie items to stave off the hunger pangs that she and her child no doubt experience.

How has America chosen to respond to food insecurity? Not by attacking the root of the problem, namely poverty, but by providing food aid. In an interesting comparison of US and European attitudes towards poverty, the World Values Survey asked its respondents if they “believed that the poor were trapped in poverty”. Whereas 60% of the Europeans answered affirmatively, only 29% of US respondents did. In other words, America’s “up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality limits the role of government in reducing poverty, but our innate compassion will not allow someone to go hungry. Hence the fifteen separate federal food assistance programmes whose collective expenditure now exceeds US$80 billion a year.

In the private charity world, the band-aid comes in the form of free food distributed by over 60,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and other so-called emergency food sites. These, in turn, are supplied by 205 very large regional food bank warehouses that operate under the aegis of Feeding America, one of the nation’s largest non-profit organisations. Taken as a whole, this is a multi-billion-dollar network that did not exist prior to the early 1980s, when the conservative administration of Ronald Reagan came into office. The ‘anti’ anti-poverty policies that ensued mean that our convenience store mother will most likely receive food stamps and an occasional food bag (a nutritionally ‘mixed bag’, unfortunately) from a food pantry, but little in the way of effective anti-poverty assistance.

These food gaps are, of course, reinforced by the country’s ever-growing low-wage economy. This became obvious to me during an interview with a New Mexico county food-stamp director who told me that he was perplexed by the surge of applications for food stamps, because the county’s unemployment rate was close to 1%. Then he realised that the largest local employers were two large Wal-Mart stores whose wages were so low that most of their workers qualified for food stamps. But rather than forcing America’s largest retailer (and thousands of other low-wage businesses) to pay a living wage, the government (i.e. the taxpayer) indirectly subsidises the company through the food stamp programme.

But we may also be cheating our struggling mother in ways that are less readily apparent. Through the failure of both public policy and well-intentioned charities to offer her a set of empowering options, we may have consigned her to the rough hand of fate. Rather than continuing to expand food assistance programmes and build bigger and better food banks, we should be making greater investments in public education, government-funded health insurance and (to hold employers accountable) a mandated living wage.

At a community level no-one should be denied access to healthy, affordable food. Where the marketplace has failed to serve the people, the people must correct the marketplace. One of the best examples is in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature allocated US$30 million dollars for new supermarket development in both rural and urban food deserts. In only four short years, the programme, known as the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, has leveraged US$90 million dollars of private investment, established over forty new supermarkets and created 3,700 new jobs.

But even with progressive public policies, we’d still be remiss if we did not place the individual at the centre of the problem. Our mother will not succeed if everything is done for her and nothing is asked of her. In Austin, Texas you will find a dynamic non-profit organisation called the Sustainable Food Center, which teaches people how to garden and how to cook. One of their projects, The Happy Kitchen, uses a peer-teaching model to instruct lower-income mothers in how to buy and prepare healthy meals. The results are astounding. In only six weeks, women whose self-esteem was so low that they could not look you in the eye before the programme, no longer slouch, and proudly inform you how they have lost weight and can now cook healthy, delicious meals for their families.

If our mother in Hartford had been able to participate in The Happy Kitchen, she would not be buying cigarettes, crisps and Pepsi. If high-quality retail outlets were accessible and affordable, she’d have a place other than a convenience store in which to shop. And if society valued good jobs and an education more than they valued short-term solutions like food banks and food stamps, our mother would be well on the road to self-sufficiency.

Mark Winne has worked for forty years with non-profit food organisations, and is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. www.markwinne.com