Hungry, heavy and poor in America
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Americaâ€™s hungriest regionÂ is also its heaviest, Â Eli Saslow reportedÂ as part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. Saslow documented the perverse coincidence of hunger, obesity, and poverty in Texasâ€™ 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. â€śIt is unrealistic to expect someone stretching their dollars to be highly worried and focused on nutritional content,â€ť Saslow quotes a food policy analyst saying. â€śThey just need to eat.â€ť
Talk of â€śfood desertsâ€ť is trendy â€“ witness former sexting Congressman Anthony Weinerâ€™sÂ latest redemption effortÂ â€“ Â but itâ€™s probably not as big of a problem as it seems,Â James McWilliams writesÂ in the Pacific Standard. McWilliams says there have been cracks in the thesis that a lack of access to healthy food causes obesity sinceÂ at least 2012. But now, the evidence is fulsome and convincing. Food deserts arenâ€™t the problem â€“ 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 â€“ from labels to menus to ads â€“ thatÂ fool us into eating terribly. But the poor, McWilliams point out, â€ślive lives defined by persistent scarcityâ€”not necessarily food scarcity, but a generalized and even traumatizing kind of material instability. Absolutely nothing about their lives is secure.â€ť
That feeling of powerlessness,Â Ta-Nahisi CoatesÂ wrote in 2009, can drive overeating: â€śThe 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.â€ť Food in America â€“ particularly high sugar, high fat junk food â€“ isÂ really, really cheap. Speaking from experience,Â Coates saidÂ that â€ś[p]ut under the proper amount of stress â€“ long day, Breyer’s in the fridge â€“ I would break.â€ť Surrounded by deep uncertainty, food becomes a controllable, affordable, and reliable pleasure.
Food that is bad for you is, unfortunately, very inexpensive. â€śAmerica 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,â€ťÂ sociologist Joseph CohenÂ told the Washington Post in April. Thereâ€™s also the problem that, much as weâ€™d like to believe otherwise, doctors still canâ€™t unequivocally identify aÂ truly healthy diet.The result, writes Dr. David Seres: the public gets â€śthe message that all dietary guidelines should be dismissed as the latest fad.â€ť
TheÂ best wayÂ 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 arenâ€™t politically viable enough. The 2014 Farm Bill, signed by Barack Obama in February, cuts food stamp spending byÂ $8.7 billionÂ over a decade. That probably wonâ€™t help poor Americans afford more or better food.Â â€”Â Ben Walsh
On to todayâ€™s links: