Stop Subsidizing Obesity

Not long ago few doctors – not even pediatricians – concerned themselves much with nutrition. This has changed, and dramatically: As childhood obesity gains recognition as a true health crisis, more and more doctors are publicly expressing alarm at the impact the standard American diet is having on health.

“I never saw Type 2 diabetes during my training, 20 years ago,” David Ludwig, a pediatrician, told me the other day, referring to what was once called “adult-onset” diabetes, the form that is often caused by obesity. “Never. Now about a quarter of the new diabetes cases we’re seeing are Type 2.”

Ludwig, who is director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center in Boston, is one of three authors, all medical doctors of an essay (“Viewpoint”) in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Opportunities to Reduce Childhood Hunger and Obesity.”

That title that would once have been impossible, but now it’s merely paradoxical. Because the situation is this: 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, 16 percent are food-insecure (this means they have inconsistent access to food), and some number, which is impossible to nail down, are both. Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

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Hunger in Plain Sight

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.

Read the rest of this column here.