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Obesity and Poverty: Examining the Link

Obesity and Poverty: Examining the Link


Obesity is considered by many to be the public health crisis of the 21 st Century. A close look at the statistics on obesity makes it hard to argue with this view. Each year, obesity-related disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Experts place the growing cost of treating weight-related conditions at more than $75 billion a year. Throughout the country, obesity rates are soaring, a trend which shows no signs of slowing down.

Of all the aspects of America’s obesity epidemic, perhaps the most troubling is the prevalence of obesity among one of the most vulnerable segments of our society: the poor. Statistics show that low-income individuals are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than those who are financially well-to-do.

While there is no shortage of theories as to why there is a connection between poverty and obesity, one clear and simple possibility can be found in a visit to your local grocery store. Strolling down the aisles, you will notice that healthy, lean foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish are more expensive than foods loaded with fat and calories, such as cookies and frozen dinners.

Given the low price of high-calorie foods, it is little wonder that those of limited means are more prone to obesity. So what can be done about the situation? The most obvious solution is to make healthy foods more affordable. And the best way to do this is to turn to good old Uncle Sam.

Getting Heavy on the Cheap

One of the reasons that many fatty foods cost less than fruits and vegetables has to do with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop subsidy program. Through this program, the government compensates farmers for growing certain kinds of crops, such as rice and cotton. The overwhelming majority of the government’s money goes toward subsidizing the production of soybeans and corn. Among other things, these crops are used to create soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, two ingredients commonly found in fattening foods ranging from soft drinks to cheeseburgers and potato chips. As a result of the subsidy program, corn syrup and soybean oil have become abundant and inexpensive, lowering the cost of the foods they’re used to produce.

In his research on agricultural subsidy programs, Dr. Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington determined that foods produced from subsidized crops, such as French fries and soda, cost about five times less per calorie than unsubsidized foods, such as broccoli and fruit juices. Based on this price-calorie comparison, Dr. Drewnowski says that from a short-term financial perspective, it may make sense for a low-income person to choose high-fat and highly sweetened foods over healthier alternatives.

In light of this analysis, the importance of making nutritious food more affordable to the poor becomes clear. Two solutions proposed by health advocates involved in this issue are subsidizing the production of fruits and vegetables and increasing federal aid to help low-income individuals purchase healthier foods.

Putting Healthy Options within Reach

Dr. Drewnowski considers it ironic that the Department of Agriculture urges people to consume fruits like oranges and bananas, which aren’t subsidized and therefore cost more, while providing people with a financial incentive through subsidies to purchase foods it says should be eaten sparingly. By subsidizing fruit and vegetable crops to make them price competitive with high-fat, high-calorie alternatives, the government would be encouraging healthier decisions at the grocery store.

Barbara Berry, of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, says that the plight of the underclass could also be improved by providing additional credits to food stamp participants who purchase vegetables and fruit. Berry supports doubling the value of food stamps used to buy produce, saying that doing so would put healthier food options within the reach of the poor. Berry's organization also supports adding more fruits and vegetables to the federal food-assistance program WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), which she says provides participants with extremely limited produce options.

Critics of such federal assistance programs often say that using government funds to help poor individuals purchase healthy food does not guarantee that they will actually decide to do so. While this may be true, unless we ensure that the poor are able to afford a healthy diet, they may never realistically have that choice in the first place.

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