January 25, 2008

The Sentences and the Fury

ALERT! ALERT! This is a serious post that will discuss important social issues and reference scientific research. You’ve been warned.

Maybe I’m overreacting. But darn if this didn’t set me off when I read this last week:

A nation in which the poor are defined by an income level that in most countries would make them prosperous is a nation that has all but forgotten the true meaning of poverty. A nation in which obesity is largely a problem of the poor (and anorexia of the upper-middle class) does not understand the word "hunger."

The offending two sentences came early on in an op-ed by Bret Stephens, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, in the Journal’s online “Opinion Journal.” In the context of the larger commentary -- a backhanded slap at anybody who dare complain about “divisions” in America or about the progress, or lack thereof, in Iraq -- these two sentences were nothing more than punditry detritus.

But those two sentences say a heck of a lot to me about how a good portion of people in this country view the socioeconomics of food and, more specifically, nutrition.

It’s true, of course, that the obesity epidemic is concentrated in less-affluent populations (how’s that for medico-journalese!). And there’s a very good reason for that: cheap, calorie-laden food is what many low-income people can afford.

Just last month, researchers from the University of Washington reported something that might surprise Mr. Stephens, but not anybody who’s been paying attention:

They found that the foods which are less energy-dense -- generally fresh fruits and vegetables -- are much more expensive per calorie than energy-dense foods -- such as those high in refined grains, added sugars, and added fats.


Lower-calorie foods jumped in price by about 19.5 percent in that two-year period, while the prices of very calorie-rich foods stayed stable or even dropped slightly, the researchers found.

And this isn’t some short-term phenomenon:

Since 1985, the actual price of fruits and vegetables has increased 40 percent, while the price of sugar and fats has declined by 14 percent.

The bottom line is that more fattening foods are far cheaper than healthful foods. This is due in very large part, of course, to the federal subsidies paid to support the growth of corn, soy, and several other “commodity crops” that are the backbone of those calorie-laden foods (e.g., the gazillion tons of corn used to feed all those cows needed to produce those flimsy little meat patties at McDonalds).

In the same McClatchy article, a beautiful chart shows that of the $70.2 billion in subsidies – that’s right, BILLION – given to agriculture interests between 1995 and 2004, only $1.55 billion went to support fruits and veggies.

So is it any wonder that, when a mom of two making, say, $16,000 a year, sees what it will cost her to buy four or five oranges, and then realizes she can get a case of generic orange soda for the same price, she chooses the case of soda?

This whole diatribe thus far brings me round to another recent study, published just this month and covered by the New York Times’ Tara Parker-Pope, which demonstrated that giving poor people vouchers to purchase fruits and veggies actually… wait for it… increased the amount of fruits and veggies they ate.

Who would have thunk it? Certainly not Mr. Stephens, who I have little doubt would decry such a program proposal as a government “handout” -- unlike those billions of dollars in federal subsidies for growing the corn so desperately needed to produce Cherry Pepsi.

In the study, women were given $10 vouchers weekly for use at a farm market or supermarket.

After six months, women who shopped at the farmers’ markets were eating about three additional servings of fruits and vegetables a day, compared to the control group. Supermarket shoppers consumed 1.5 extra servings.

The study results, Ms. Pope reported, coincide with a decision by the USDA -- after apparently a bit of pressure from public health groups -- to start giving participants in the federal W.I.C. program (Women, Infants, and Children) subsidies for purchasing fruits and vegetables.

“Wonderful!” you might think. “Fantastic, even!”

Think again:

The W.I.C. program will provide monthly vouchers worth $8 to each recipient and $6 to each child. Breastfeeding women will receive just $10 a month toward fruits and vegetables.

So here you have a study that demonstrates quite clearly that the eating habits of poor women with children can be significantly improved through nominal weekly vouchers for fruits and veggies. In contrast, you see an action by the USDA intended merely to provide a talking point, something along the lines of, “We are helping poor women and their children eat healthier with vouchers for fruits and vegetables…”

The well-documented socioeconomic disparities in deaths from diseases like cancer and heart disease are not due to happenstance. There are directly attributed to environmental and economic factors, such as whether somebody can afford to buy a bunch of grapes or a bag of carrots at the grocery store. And, meanwhile, you have the government subsidizing the production of the most fattening and cheap foods on the planet, while doing almost nothing to help those in most need of getting an apple a day.

And what are the costs of this?

A new study shows that the nation's unchecked diabetes epidemic exacts a heavy financial toll as well: $174 billion a year. That's about as much as the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism combined.


The incidence of diabetes has ballooned — there are 1 million new cases a year — as more Americans become overweight or obese, according to the study, released Wednesday by the American Diabetes Association. The cost of diabetes — both in direct medical care and lost productivity — has swelled 32% since 2002, the report shows. (emphasis added)

So, contrary to Mr. Stephens’ assertion, I would argue that, as a country, we definitely understand what “hunger” means. There are many kids and adults who go to bed -- or heck, spend a good portion of their day – hungry, and there are many others who have enough money to eat, but only the cheapest foods, the stuff that leads to things like obesity and diabetes.

I don’t know how much any one individual can do about any of this. But aside from the superior taste and quality of everything I get from local providers, buying as much as I can from local farms is one way I see to help further develop a local food infrastructure that can, in its own way, be part of the solution to these problems.

I know that our CSA, Harvest Valley Farms, participates in WIC, and hopefully as people start to demand more sustainably raised produce and meat, more of it will become available, the price will begin to inch down, and something good can begin to take hold well beyond what’s in my CSA basket each Tuesday from May to November.

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