Hungry, heavy and poor in America

August 12, 2014

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America’s hungriest region is also its heaviest,  Eli Saslow reported as part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. Saslow documented the perverse coincidence of hunger, obesity, and poverty in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. In one county in the region, 32 percent of the residents are obese and 40 percent have been severely hungry in the last month. The problem is complex, but the crux of it comes down to trying to feed families on minuscule budgets and limited aid. “It is unrealistic to expect someone stretching their dollars to be highly worried and focused on nutritional content,” Saslow quotes a food policy analyst saying. “They just need to eat.”

Talk of “food deserts” is trendy – witness former sexting Congressman Anthony Weiner’s latest redemption effort –  but it’s probably not as big of a problem as it seems, James McWilliams writes in the Pacific Standard. McWilliams says there have been cracks in the thesis that a lack of access to healthy food causes obesity since at least 2012. But now, the evidence is fulsome and convincing. Food deserts aren’t the problem – poverty is.

Bad nutrition and obesity are, of course, not phenomena confined to the poor, even though the poor are disproportionately affected by them. Everyone gets bombarded with things – from labels to menus to ads – that fool us into eating terribly. But the poor, McWilliams point out, “live lives defined by persistent scarcity—not necessarily food scarcity, but a generalized and even traumatizing kind of material instability. Absolutely nothing about their lives is secure.”

That feeling of powerlessness, Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote in 2009, can drive overeating: “The deeper the five train wended into Brooklyn, the blacker it became, and the blacker it became, the fatter it got. I was there among them–the blacker and fatter–and filled with a sort of shameful self-loathing at myself and my greater selves around me.” Food in America – particularly high sugar, high fat junk food – is really, really cheap. Speaking from experience, Coates said that “[p]ut under the proper amount of stress – long day, Breyer’s in the fridge – I would break.” Surrounded by deep uncertainty, food becomes a controllable, affordable, and reliable pleasure.

Food that is bad for you is, unfortunately, very inexpensive. “America is a place where luxuries are cheap and necessities costly. A big-screen TV costs much less than it does in Europe, but health care will sink you,” sociologist Joseph Cohen told the Washington Post in April. There’s also the problem that, much as we’d like to believe otherwise, doctors still can’t unequivocally identify a truly healthy diet.The result, writes Dr. David Seres: the public gets “the message that all dietary guidelines should be dismissed as the latest fad.”

The best way to help the poor and the hungry seems to be to give them cash, not send them to a food bank. Food stamps, which are a more politically viable way to deliver aid to the hungry, apparently aren’t politically viable enough. The 2014 Farm Bill, signed by Barack Obama in February, cuts food stamp spending by $8.7 billion over a decade. That probably won’t help poor Americans afford more or better food. — Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

Biotech firm didn’t enjoy its six days as a public company – Matt Levine

FICC revenues are down everywhere, and they’re probably not coming back – Tracy Alloway

Generation Debt
Half of federal student loan borrowers aren’t paying on time – Shahien Nasiripour

Crisis Retro
Six years later, we’ve decided that nameless “executives” are to blame for Lehman’s failure – Matthew Goldstein

That’s So Gross
Bill Gross is doing Wizard of Oz tweets now – PIMCO

Welcome to Russia’s Hunger Games – Izabella Kaminska

The robot economy: Art museum tours edition – The Guardian

“The median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012″ – NYTimes

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