The connection between poverty, hunger, and obesity
In Germany, they're running public service announcements asking Germans to help the poor, starving children... of the United States. Huffington Post's Eleanor Goldberg writes in a July 1, 2015, article (updated on July 13) that the 30-second Germany for America spot asks Germans to contribute to help the 49 million U.S. residents who are "struggling with food insecurity."
That's the new euphemism for hunger: "food insecurity." In a terribly misguided article from June 2013, Forbes contributor Paul Roderick Gregory quotes a letter writer who blames a poor woman's obesity on "bad choices." That's like blaming a southpaw for choosing the wrong hand.
The thing that connects poverty and obesity is hunger. In an article from January 2010, Michelle, a.k.a. the Fat Nutritionist, explains the physiology behind the propensity of hungry people to choose sugary and fatty foods. Here's the cycle:
1. When you're hungry, your body is craving energy.
2. The quickest sources of energy are sugar and fat.
3. Your body's immediate need for fuel that it can convert quickly to energy supersedes all rational thinking about nutrition. A more primal part of the brain takes control of the old impulses: Energy! Now!
The best -- perhaps only -- way to combat obesity is by ending hunger. Once people are no longer worried about where their next meal will come from and can be confident they'll receive three square meals a day, they won't be slaves to their body's craving for quick energy.
Dispelling the 'food desert' myth
National Geographic Magazine recently ran a series of articles entitled The New Face of Hunger that examined the widespread impact of hunger in the U.S. One of the graphics accompanying the article mapped the "food deserts" in and around Houston. It stated that 43,000 households in the metropolitan area had no car and were more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket.
At the heart of First Lady Michelle Obama's Healthy Food Financing Initiative of 2010 was the push to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to people living in these food deserts. As Slate's Heather Tirado Gilligan writes in a February 10, 2014, article, several studies have shown that such programs don't improve the health and longevity of poor people compared to their richer counterparts.
Gilligan cites two other studies, one by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that found poor areas actually have more grocery stores than other neighborhoods. What causes poor people to be sicker and to die younger than wealthier people is what Gilligan refers to as the "constant calculus of survival." Poor people are preoccupied with the immediacy of getting through the day: keeping the lights on, making sure the kids have shoes, keeping a roof over their heads.
Bruce McEwan, who researches the biology of health inequality, calls this phenomenon "allostatic load." When the body is under constant stress, it suffers damage that manifests itself as inflammation. This inflammation "underlies all of the diseases of modern life," according to McEway, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
So if you want to address obesity in this country, you have to address hunger. And you can't address hunger unless you address the poverty that underlies it.
Government food programs: Well intentioned, but ineffective
How much food is wasted in the U.S.? In a June 25, 2015, article, Earth Island Journal's Zoe Loftus Farren claims that 40 percent of the food we produce never gets consumed. The America Gives More Act is an attempt to reduce this percentage. The act makes it easier for restaurants, farmers, and other small businesses to donate food by allowing them to write off the donations on their taxes. Huffington Post's Eleanor Goldberg describes the goals of the program in an April 22, 2015, article.
The tax law that allows C corporations to deduct food donations would be extended by the act to cover small businesses that are currently excluded from claiming such donations as tax deductions.
Similarly, the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act of 2015 is intended to provide money for poor families to feed their children during the summer months, when the schools that feed the children breakfast and lunch are closed. According to Examiner.com's William Lambers in a June 23, 2015, article, only 18 percent of the children who receive free lunches during the school year are fed free lunches when school is out.
Of course, there is much resistance to social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps. This unattributed April 3, 2015, article on Judicial Watch is a prime example of the program's detractors. I tend to criticize SNAP for the exact opposite reason: It doesn't go far enough.
Imagine a country where no one has to be concerned about where their next nutritious meal will come from, nor whether they and their family will have a safe please to sleep that night. Last week's Weekly referred to the Four Freedoms championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others. Two of those freedoms are freedom from want and fear. Two of the greatest fears of our age are hunger and homelessness.
Imagine giving anyone who is hungry a free, healthy meal three times a day. Not only that, give anyone who needs it a safe place to sleep at night -- one that doesn't entail mug shots and iron bars. Will a few people take unfair advantage of these programs? Certainly, but we're charitable enough to let them (while also careful enough to police the system to detect and prevent fraud).
The people who make the food we eat are entitled to make a profit for their work. One way to pay for a free-food program is by levying a tax on high-sugar, high-fat foods. Just a thought. I'm sure there are others.
We can end hunger in America. We can end homelessness in America. But only if we have the collective will to do so. It starts by imagining it.