Fat, Dumb, AND Hungry?

Kenji Sugahara

In my previous posts I discussed Oregon's issues with obesity and education. In 2003 a USDA study declared Oregon as the "hungriest" state in the nation. While the #1 ranking may be debatable, there is still a high rate of hunger in the state. How can we have a high rate of obesity yet have a high rate of hunger?

Opponents of the ranking, like the Cascade Policy Institute, point to Oregon’s and Washington’s moderate poverty levels and average per-capita income in an effort to question the accuracy of the study. (And I have to add that a lot of their facts and figures weren't sourced.) The author of the study, Matt Nord, does admit that there are hefty sampling errors, but goes onto say that Oregon probably ranks in the top four or five states. Either way, the Register Guard described it best when it said:

Ultimately, it really shouldn't matter whether Oregon ranks No. 1 or No. 3 or, let's be generous, No. 6 in hunger. Thousands of Oregonians don't have enough money for food. Or, more precisely, they don't always have enough money left over for food after paying for housing, utilities, transportation, medical care and other expenses. Food is a relatively minor item in most household budgets, but unlike many others, it's subject to some degree of control. In Oregon's economy, with scarce jobs, low wages and high housing costs, some households' budgets are so tight that people find themselves skipping or delaying food purchases and end up being counted as hungry. That's the face of hunger in America, and in Oregon. Few of the state's hungry people are living in absolute privation. Instead, they're living so close to the edge that food becomes their budgetary shock absorber. Such conditions are a call to action - feeding the hungry is the most fundamental of human responsibilities - but hunger won't disappear as long as the economic pressures that create it persist.

During the year that ended on June 30, 2003, over 53,000 individuals in Marion and Polk counties-15% of area residents-ate from an emergency food box at least once to avoid going hungry. 24,380 were children. The number of families assisted with a food box increased 19% to more than 4,080 a month. Shelters and on-site meal providers served 383,887 hot meals, an increase of nearly 14% from 2002. Since July 1, 2003, the number of families seeking a food box increased 24% to over 4,700 a month. Aid groups are seeing new faces. Marion-Polk Food Share is distributing 350,000 pounds of food a month, a 19% increase compared to 2002. - Marion Country Food Share.

In 2003, for the first time in the history of the federal food stamp program, Oregon had more people receiving food-stamp benefits than living in poverty. By this measure, Oregon also had the nation's highest ratio of food stamp recipients compared to those living below the federal poverty level.

So ok... we have a high rate of hunger. How can we have a high rate of obesity?

This seeming paradox is made possible by a variety of factors. Families without money tend to rely on cheaper high calorie foods over expensive, nutrient rich foods before cutting back on the amount of food. Trying to stave off hunger and stretch dollars, families try to maximize caloric consumption for each dollar spent. As a result, families may get enough food to avoid hunger, but they may be poorly nourished because they cannot afford a consistent diet that promotes health and prevents obesity. In addition, people’s body can adapt negatively to the feast-famine cycle that can appear with poverty. Chronic fluctuations in food availability can cause people to binge when food is available. Over time, this can contribute to obesity as bodies become more efficient at storing more calories as fat.

Furthermore, economics of neighborhoods can contribute to obesity. In many poor neighborhoods it is easier to find Doritos and Big Macs than fresh fruits and vegetables. Nutritionists call these areas “food deserts.” These are areas that lack grocery stores but have plenty of fast food restaurants and corner stores filled with junk snacks. It would be an economic hardship for residents to spend 30 minutes to take a bus out to the suburbs to find a grocery store where healthy alternatives are available. For a case in point, Flint, MI, the infamously rusted-out former automotive town, has only one supermarket in its city limits. Ann Arbor, a flourishing college town, has nine. While adding new grocery stores won’t solve all the problems, what is the point of promoting healthy eating when residents can’t even obtain healthy food.

Source material linked off of FRAC.

Tackling these problems is going to be a tough endeavor. How would we tackle this? My best guess would be to increase the economic pie. How? That's for another post.

While it may seem that I may be bringing up negative aspects of the state, they are problems that we, as Oregonians, need to address. Change comes through education. I have full confidence in our citizens that we can change ourselves for the better when provided the information and the tools.

Well... unless of course we get labeled as the ugliest state. There's nothing we could do about THAT. ;)

  • brett (unverified)

    My best guess would be to increase the economic pie.

    Yep. More money = more food choices, which are likely to be healthier.

    unless of course we get labeled as the ugliest state.

    Nah, come on. We've got our issues, but there have to be worse states out there. Alaska?

  • iggi (unverified)

    "Well... unless of course we get labeled as the ugliest state. There's nothing we could do about THAT"

    we could subsidize plastic surgery for those who meet a set of "ugly" qualifications.

  • joel (unverified)

    Do you know of any data on the obesity rate among Oregonians (or Americans) classified as hungry? Is there any reason to think it is the same as the general population?

  • Alexander Craghead (unverified)

    Precisely, Kenji -- cheap food is crappy food. Also, don't overlook poor management of money. Some people spend their money when they have it, overextending themselves and getting fat in the good times, and then they hit the wall in lean times.

    BTW, part of this is the materialistic measurement of a living standard -- some people cannot afford food because they decided they wanted, say, cable TV. Or cell phones. Or a new computer. And then when times are tough they complain they can't afford food because they are paying off their inflated bills. (And many times you can't correct this by cancelling those services unless you want to pay a hefty kill fee on your contract, as anyone who has wanted to change cell providers will know.)

    Is there a solution? Heh... don't ask me, I don't have one. But yes, increasing the economic base is, long term, the best option. You can't really regulate healthy living, but you can create an environment where it is both accessable and desireable.

    Another comment? We've got to stop glorifying the "perfect body" image. It only discourages people when they hit the wall their metabolism puts up, and then they say "aw f*** it" and go back to the bag of Cheetos. Healthy does not equal looking like a movie star or an athlete.

  • Justin (unverified)

    I think its evidence that the disparity between fat and thin is only getting greater.

    The fat are getting fatter while the thin get thinner.

    <h2>Where is the Justice, I ask you, Where is the Justice?</h2>

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