Obesity and Hunger

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on June 16, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

According to Wikepedia, the physiological term cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc.”  Those feelings accurately describe the general reaction we all have when faced with the reality that existing in our own community are high rates of obesity coupled with poverty and food insecurity (i.e., hunger), often times among the same population .  If you are unaware of the complexity of issues that contribute to this reality, it can be confusing. How can people who are hungry be overweight, even obese? Yet the statistics don’t lie. Both exist side by side in the Valley, and elsewhere, at alarming rates.

Perhaps the confusion arises because when we think of hunger and malnutrition, we picture  victims of African famine—horrifyingly skinny children with bloated stomachs. In fact, there is another face of malnutrition, which is less dramatic and doesn’t kill as swiftly, but certainly has huge health and economic impacts. In famine there is a lack of food for subsistence. In our society, food is abundant, but often access to healthy food is limited. As is true of most issues, it takes some thoughtfulness and investigation to really understand. It can’t be summarized in an evening news sound bite or Facebook post.

Some key local leaders who work to address both issues (hunger and obesity) recently gathered to discuss the topic, and to view a poignant film which gives a human face to both issues and explains how they are intimately related because of the way our food system and economy is designed. As we followed the story of a single mom trying to get off of public assistance, finally finding a job only to realize that a minimum wage does not pay enough for rent, bills, and food for her two young children, we were touched at her desire to feed her kids healthy food, and her frustration, in the end, at not even being able to feed enough at all. As she sat spooning ravioli out of a can (earlier she had vowed she would never feed her kids canned food) with tears rolling down her face, she said “I don’t get paid again for another week. I just don’t know what I’m going to feed them.”

We don’t have to watch a movie to discover similar stories right here in our own community where many families struggle, even on food stamps, to get enough to eat. I know a woman who is very disabled from MS and trying to raise her three grandkids without any help. They receive food stamps (SNAP) but it often isn’t enough to get them through the month since she can no longer work to subsidize the $4.50 a day provided by SNAP.

I admit I used to judge the junk food filled shopping carts of people at the grocery store, even more harshly if they used a Lonestar card to pay. I can’t tell you how angry people get when I bring up this subject. We really don’t like the idea of poor people getting to eat chips and soda. But all it took was for me to try and live on a food stamp budget for a week to change my attitude. The only way I managed to have enough food for my three kids was to use the eggs from my son’s pet chicken, and some produce from our backyard garden. Otherwise, it was a pretty unhealthy and dismal diet of ramen noodles, canned food and sugary carbs to fill up their bellies so they wouldn’t feel hungry. This reinforced my commitment to creating local food systems, community gardens, farm stands and markets. People have said to me, “How about rice and beans? Why don’t poor people just eat rice and beans, that’s pretty healthy?” We did that for a few days in a row, lunch and dinner. It’s not so easy to only eat rice and beans over and over again.  Try it if you think it is. Then try getting your kids to do it.

There is, of course, room for reform of the food subsidy system. There are so many non-punitive ways we could encourage and enable folks to purchase fresh produce—for example incentivizing the purchase of fruits and veggies (e.g., more value for your food stamp dollars when you make healthy choices) and limiting some types of products. But there is also room for larger reform of our system of subsidies to big agriculture and food corporations which cost us more and encourage the production of over-processed products from genetically modified soy beans and corn and has hurt local small farmers by subsidizing large agricultural corporations. Reform of that system could truly make a difference in the economy and enable everyone to fulfill their most basic need of nourishment, thus improving the health of our citizenry and saving billions on health care. That is a larger issue that has a history and complexity worth an article of its own.

Huffington Post recently reported that some legislators in Washington are limiting their food budgets for a week to what a person gets from food stamps to protest nutrition assistance cuts. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) detailed her grocery plans in a Wednesday blog post.  “Getting your budget down to $4.50 a day is complicated. You need to try to make sure you have enough protein, limit your sodium, and find good vegetables,” she wrote, adding that she bought crackers, peanut butter, and an array of canned goods. “When I was a young, single mother, I was on public assistance,” she wrote. “I spent hours debating what to buy and what to skip, all the while keeping my sons in my mind. I could go without breakfast; my sons couldn’t.” The decisions we make are never simple, even when we have enough, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).

If you are really interested in learning about this issue, go to this website:  http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity