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Low-income Californians especially vulnerable to obesity epidemic

by Chris Hinyub, published

A  new study has found a direct causal relationship between income and obesity rates in Americans. The lower one’s paycheck, the more likely they are to be overweight say researchers at the University of California at Davis.  

Those conducting the study attributed the phenomenon to a lack of healthy eating options for low-income households.

According to a 2007 California Health Interview Survey conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 23 percent of Californians are obese. However, obesity rates in the Central Valley hover closer to one-third of the population. Taken together with U.S. Census data from 2008, the poverty rate of the region is at least 20 percent. Statewide, the poverty rate keeps the same proportional relationship at 13 percent.

Experts agree that a lack of access to fresh produce and lean meats combined with a lack of time to prepare nutritious meals leaves cash-strapped Americans to settle for the cheapest and quickest calories they can buy. The vast majority of these affordable calories are of the “empty” variety – lacking nutritive value.

In poverty stricken neighborhoods, supermarkets are few and far between. Usually, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (which offer little more than calorie dense, high fructose corn syrup laden, processed foods) have become their substitute. Such snacks might satisfy our innate cravings for something sweet, salty and fatty, but because of their unnatural chemical structure, these foods can never be properly metabolized. Instead, our bodies are more inclined to store their carbs as fat.

But what is it that makes the worst caliber of calorie the cheapest? As it turns out, the United States Department of Agriculture directly subsidizes the main ingredients of processed foods. Beginning in the 1970’s, the federal government has offered direct commodity subsidies to farmers willing to grow one of a select few crops.

From this model, the “value added commodity” revolution was born. Since that time, the ensuing glut of cheap commodities such as corn and soy have been broken down into their constituent parts and their molecules reassembled in labs to produce a myriad of food additives and products.

Food processors soon became the main supplier of calories to the American supermarket and restaurant industry while corn, soy and wheat (now predominantly genetically modified) became our most accessible sources of food.

As we are seeing, it isn’t just corn farmers (and the millions of family farmers they displaced over the past forty years) that are losing on this raw deal. Millions of rural, suburban and urban Americans trapped on the lower end of the income spectrum are enslaved to unhealthy eating habits because real, whole foods everywhere are undercut by their processed food counterparts.

It is speculated, however, that not all factors contributing to the nation’s skyrocketing obesity rate are cost-driven.

Paul Leigh, professor at the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research and senior author of the new study, explains that a certain level of stress and anxiety naturally accompanies an impoverished lifestyle. Convenient, calorie-dense, processed foods can provide an “emotional lift” for the down and out. Leigh also speculates that social and cultural pressures – thanks to ingenious marketing by major food companies – might make immigrant populations see a trip to McDonalds as an integral part of the American dream.

The director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, Dr. Adam Drewnowski told the Fresno Bee, “The obesity epidemic among the poor has very little to do with individual motivation or even genetics or metabolism.” He added, "Obesity is an expression of limited resources. Solutions really lie in education, instruction, access to healthy foods and being able to afford healthy foods."

Perhaps the exploding local food movement can address the problems of healthy food access, affordability and nutritional education by connecting consumers with the ever growing number of local food producers. Maybe the ills of poverty and obesity can be cured by positively responding to the signals of the free market which is begging for an end to commodity subsidies and the unfettered expansion of local markets for sustainably grown food.

Invigorating local food economies opens a plethora of job opportunities to the poor who can find economic independence by producing their own food. Access to community gardens can supply the land and farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs can provide the low-cost venue needed to sell their produce.

…Just a thought.

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