The Obesity and Poverty Connection


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If you saw the movie, Precious (or watched the clip they showed at the Oscars) you've seen a perfect illustration of poverty and obesity in the United States. In the movie, Precious is hungry and has no money for food so she steals a bucket of chicken and eats until she throws up. A bucket of chicken from a store front in her neighborhood versus a freshly made sandwich from the organic market or even fresh fruit from a local grocery store.


Poverty stricken people who cannot afford food are now classified as being, "food insecure" rather than starving, in order to illustrate the lack of available grocery stores with fresh produce as well as a lack of money to purchase food for yourself or your family on a daily basis. This state of food insecurity is on the rise in alarming numbers in America as illustrated in an article in the New York Times (that uses the Precious example) as researchers connect the rates of hunger with the rates of obesity.

The article describes the connection as complicated, but to simplify; we're talking about a population that has no access to healthy food. When they do have food, it's items such as the greasy chicken in Precious, that offers little nutritional value and a whole lot of other things that make you fat and sick. Grocery stores in poor areas offer inexpensive, processed foods, which will also make you fat, diabetic and unhealthy.

In New York City, the Bloomberg administration is taking this connection seriously, as they should since an area in the South Bronx had the highest incidence of food insecurity in the entire nation. To combat both problems, the city implemented a program where food stamps will pay a return of $2 for every $5 spent at a farmers' market. Another program gives fresh fruit food cart vendors and groceries tax incentives to sell in low-income neighborhoods. Two grocery stores have re-built or expanded since the tax breaks went into effect.

Growing up in rural Oklahoma, it was a long drive to a city that might have a grocery store large enough to carry organic or fresh produce in the winter. We had vegetables and some fruits that we grew ourselves, but after the harvesting period was over we were often out of luck. Enjoying fresh food year-round wasn't an option. Even today, for many people the closest grocery store (or most affordable grocery store) could be a Wal-Mart. And not one of those "green" Wal-Marts. The basic one with processed food and household goods. Obesity and disease are epidemic all over our country, and the way we eat needs to change whether we're in the South Bronx or Southwestern Arkansas.

While these initiatives in New York won't solve the other problems with obesity (working long hours with no time for exercise, much less money for a gym membership) it is a step in the right direction. Offering options can teach people that not all food is created equal. Placing a higher value on the fresh food from the farmers' market creates an awareness, and hopefully inspires action. It's not a solution to this epidemic, but it's a good place to start. Hopefully the other states of the union will take note and take care.

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