2.10.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 6: Are Americans Hungry - Or Fat?

Summary:

Despite food insecurity and ever-increasing dependence on food banks, some conservative think tanks continue to generate contagious rhetoric that hunger is not a problem in the US.  These groups also insist that even if we do have hunger, it's not as bad as that of developing countries, rendering it a non-issue.  "They certainly would not want to benchmark the stock market or our military capabilities to the developing world, but they are always willing to let poor people settle for less."

The most effective message propagated by hunger deniers is that the US can't be hungry because it is so fat.  This message ignores the truth that people can be both hungry and fat simultaneously.  Overweight caused by poor nutrition is often the direct result of poor people purchasing (and subsequently consuming) as many calories as possible for as little money as possible.

Local, seasonal tomatoes may be delicious,
but provide very few calories per dollar
when compared to junk foods.
People who eat foods low in nutrition are not particularly unintelligent or uneducated about food; rather they lack the access or ability to afford more nutritious options.  High percentages of people with very low food security report feeding their children low cost foods with little variety, and would need to spend as much as 70% of their food budgets on produce to meet the dietary guideline of 9 servings a day.  (This would not allow them to purchase enough calories to survive, however.)  "To keep tummies full, low-income families eat a lot of cheap fast food and processed foods."

Supermarkets build stores in communities that can afford their wares.  This leads to the creation of "food deserts" - areas where there is low or no access to stores selling fresh, healthy foods.  (Because race and economic class are so intrinsically linked in many parts of the country, this often leads to food deserts in communities of color.)  "Areas without a full range of markets are obesogenic."  (It is unsurprising, then, that we see higher rates obesity and resulting illnesses in people of color.)  Black people with diabetes, for example, are three times more likely to die of the condition as whites.

Incomplete, unavailable, and misleading nutritional information increases the consumption of foods of poor nutritional value.  Cheap, unhealthy food has also been engineered to taste delicious.  Additionally, the psychological effects of food insecurity can cause binging behavior when food is available.  Health effects are compounded by the fact that doctors are not trained in proper nutrition, but only in addressing the diseases caused by poor nutrition - the problem is thus not prevented, only treated after the fact.

While obesity is caused by many mechanisms - including plain old overeating of people who are food secure and do have good food access - poverty and lack of food access can greatly exacerbate the difficulty of maintaining health.  Considering that people of lower income are also less likely to have access to gyms, parks, and other safe spaces in which to exercise, it becomes obvious that the poor face often insurmountable odds when it comes to nutrition and health.

Discussion:

In the summary for this chapter, I could not restrain myself from editorializing - note the phrases in parentheses.  For all this chapter says, there are things that I deem important that were not said.  This book is imperfect!  Shocking right?

In case any reader did not understand the thrust of this section, it is as follows:

***A PERSON CAN BE BOTH FAT AND FOOD INSECURE.  FOOD INSECURITY CAN, IN FACT, LEAD TO FATNESS.***

It works like this: people ho have NO food, who are actually starving to death, obviously lose weight.  We know this.  But people who have *some* food, or rather a very small amount of money for food - such as those on food stamps - buy foods that have the highest caloric content for the least amount of money.  Every one of us is all too familiar with foods that have a ton of calories and don't cost much.  These are the chips, sodas, candy, and other processed foods that fill the center aisles of our grocery stores. Often the least nutritious of these masquerade as healthy foods.  In corner stores and bodegas, these junk foods make up approximately 100% of the food offerings.  And they are utterly delicious, thanks to the miracle of modern science.

The problem is that there's no food in the food.  There are calories, sure.  But they're composed of the kinds of nutrients that our bodies are only supposed to receive in very small quantities: sugars and other simple carbohydrates, salts, and fats.  These components, while necessary, are relatively rare in nature, so our brains are designed to seek them out and enjoy them most of all.  The cheap foods are almost entirely lacking, though, in the kinds of nutrients we're supposed to eat a lot of: complex carbohydrates, insoluble fiber, and sometimes protein.  People who only eat "junk food" because it's all that they can afford can easily get enough or even too many calories, but aren't getting the right balance of nutrients to promote health.  (Of note: it takes a good deal more than plopping a supermarket down in a neighborhood to remedy a food desert... but more on that at a later date.)

Fat Shaming Bingo!
The most common answer to this imbalance is to blame "personal responsibility."  This stems from a myopic view of the issue.  To say to people with food insecurity that they must "simply choose better foods" is to say "don't eat enough calories to survive" - with a distinct "you're lazy and stupid" subtext. In no way is this a legitimate, reasonable, or fair stance.  It's flat out unhelpful, and serves only as a way to clear our own consciences of thinking that we might be playing a role in this situation - or that it could happen to us.  There is no shortage of outright fat shaming, a practice that could not possibly be less productive.  It's also passing the buck, shifting the responsibility for our food environment away from the entities that actually create it and toward consumers, who have little to no control over it.

If we don't control it, who does?  Well that's easy.  There is an increasingly small handful of companies that owns our food, advertises it to us, manipulates how it is displayed to us in stores, and convinces us that we cannot be healthy or even live without it.  These same companies are supported by our government to produce the exact kinds of foods that are killing us: USDA's policies do not support a food environment that allows people to eat according to its own nutritional guidelines.

Something has to give to change this system, and it's got little to do with personal responsibility.  Is it more waistlines - or possibly more lives?

**Addendum!  The inimitable Michelle Moskowitz Brown points out in the comments that obesity is no longer concentrated in communities of lower income - or at least not for men.  This study from the Pew Research Center looks at how it's playing out currently.  I suspect it will continue to evolve.


2 comments:

  1. Michelle Moskowitz brownFebruary 11, 2015 at 8:42 PM

    Great, passionate write up. I'll just add that obesity is no longer associated with income, except in certain populations, such as white women and children. It is now a problem for almost every population and income level.

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    1. Thanks! Overweight is certainly a problem across the spectrum at this point. Your comment made me look for more info - and I'll be damned! Sure enough, the numbers are moving away from that conclusion at this point. And yet I've read so many recent studies that still reach it! I suppose we're still seeing how industrial food will play out in our bodies. Isn't it fun to be a guinea pig?

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