The Executive Director of Bread for the City has written an open letter to the Washington Post in response to its recent article on obesity and hunger. The letter reports recent steps Bread has taken to help its clients “not only eat, but eat well”–nutrition counseling and healthy cooking classes, improvements in the nutrition profile of the foods it provides.
It’s good to see Bread for the City taking the lead on this important issue and especially to learn that it’s practicing what it preaches. But, as its letter says, high obesity rates among poor people are not something Bread and other nonprofits can tackle alone. And they must be tackled because obesity is linked to serious (and costly) chronic health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
Bread calls on the new Administration to expand access to food assistance programs in a way that prioritizes nutrition. As the Post reports, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture seems ready to propose higher nutrition standards for in-school meals. These would certainly help. But, as everyone knows, a more comprehensive approach is needed.
Of course, obesity is not restricted to poor people. It’s a major public health issue for the entire population. However, the federal government and state and local governments too have greater opportunities to influence what poor people do and don’t do. They can exercise this influence sensibly and respectfully or otherwise.
The federal government already shapes the diets of some poor people with its list of foods state agencies can authorize under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Now some are proposing that it restrict use of food stamps to healthy foods and beverages.
This idea is fraught with problems. An article in USDA’s Amber Waves identifies some of them. As it indicates, there’s no easy way to draw a bright white line between healthy and unhealthy food products. Nor is it certain that the resulting restrictions would meaningfully change purchasing behavior. To these practical issues, I would add the paternalistic coercion that would be involved. Uncle Sam knows what’s best for you and is going to see to it that you live right.
It would make more sense, I think, to look at the obesity issue holistically and design a variety of coordinated programs that would empower poor people to maintain a balanced diet. Here are four basic questions that can trigger solutions:
- Do poor people have the resources to stave off hunger–a possible trigger for overeating and fat storage?
- Do they have the resources to buy a variety of healthful foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables?
- Do they have ready access to sources of a variety of healthful foods?
- Do they have the know-how to maintain a balanced diet on a limited budget?
Despite a number of promising initiatives, the answer to all these questions is a resounding No.
So there’s a lot of work here for governments at all levels and for private sector businesses, nutritionists, other health professionals and nonprofits, including Bread. We’ve enough experience to know they’ll achieve most if they collaborate.