Admit it: Every now and then you see a chubby kid drinking a soda and you think, “Why do his parents feed him so much?” The answer may be more complex (and depressing) than you think. It’s true that this country has an obesity problem. But while in some cases the cause of obesity can be as simple as eating too much junk food (we see you, KFC Double Down) and not exercising enough; in many cases the obesity is a modern-day symptom of not having enough to eat (or at least not having enough of the right stuff).
A great new NPR story puts this picture in stark relief: “Eating Nutritiously A Struggle When Money is Scarce.” The story illustrates how families who are operating on the financial margins are, by necessity, going for the cheapest and most economical food options, which for the most part are heavily processed, sugary, and/or fatty foods. As the operator of one local food bank puts it, “A gallon of milk is $3-something. A bottle of orange soda is 89 cents. Do the math.”
According to the USDA, as many as 17 million children are living in households where food is scarce. And as we recently reported, Feeding America has found that as many as one in four children in Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona are living with “food insecurity” – in which it’s not certain where the next meal will come from.
Many of those families are putting meals on the table as best they can: through a patchwork of aid programs, food banks, and econo-packs of cheap food. And when the local fast-food stand runs a 99-cent meal special, it makes economic sense to go for a meal that’s fast, filling, and cheap (albeit highly processed and fattening).
As far as federal aid goes, policymakers are skittish about spending new money to curb hunger, especially when the obesity epidemic is all over the news. It’s hard to reconcile that image of a chunky kid with the idea that good food might be extremely hard to come by for that child’s family. That’s why it seems to be a problem that begs for local action from those who work on the front lines with families and their children, and who see first-hand how the quickest and cheapest fix becomes the go-to source of nutrition. We need our local nutritionists, food banks, educators, and counselors to help encourage healthy choices and find ways to make healthy food more affordable. We need to get more farmers’ markets into the neediest areas, and food stamps accepted at more farmers’ markets. (For a report from the Community Food Security Coalition on connecting SNAP recipients with farmers’ markets, click here.) And we all need to help get the word “up” to the federal level that today’s hungry children aren’t necessarily wasting away; they’re more likely suffering under the baggage of extra pounds brought on by eating the cheapest diet possible.