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America's Obesity Epidemic is Worst in Low-Income Communities

An editorial  published in Saturday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune stated that, "You hear it everywhere these days: Americans are fat. Obesity is a public health crisis that affects millions and costs billions. As the pounds mount, so do the medical bills. Something to contemplate as you head for the State Fair? No, we're not that cruel. Enjoy your annual pigout on a stick, then reflect on the fatness issue and especially its linkage to poverty.

"This week, a Trust for America's Health survey  showed obesity rates are rising for all Americans, but poorer states have the highest rates of all. In Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia, for example, 28 percent or more of the residents are obese. (By comparison, Colorado is the leanest state with about 16 percent and Minnesota is 27th in the nation with a 23 percent rate.)

"Regardless of income level, most of us know what it takes to battle that bulge. Eat better and less. Exercise more.

"Yet some factors make that more difficult for the poor. Lower-income areas have fewer stores with healthy, affordable food choices, so families tend to fill up on cheap, high-calorie items. Because African and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately poor and have historically and culturally had higher-fat diets, they are especially affected by the trend. Depression and stress also can lead to sedentary lifestyles -- including way too much television watching. Many schools have dramatically lowered physical education requirements for children. In high-crime areas, often moms stay indoors with kids for safety, get little exercise and become poster families for the obesity epidemic."

An article published in the September issue of Amber Waves (U.S.D.A. ­ Economic Research Service) titled, "Food Assistance: How Strong Is the Safety Net?"
by Michael LeBlanc, Biing-Hwan Lin, and David Smallwood, stated that, "U.S. agriculture and nutrition policy includes a variety of farm programs and food assistance and nutrition programs that support an abundant food supply and affordable prices. The core food assistance programs, managed and funded by USDA, include the Food Stamp Program , the school meals programs, WIC, and commodity distribution programs. These programs serve one in every five Americans at some point during the year. The Federal Government partners with State and local, public, and private agencies to administer (and, in some cases, contribute funding for) its food assistance efforts. Each program has its own objectives, eligibility criteria, benefit structure, and legislative oversight.

"The Food Stamp Program is the foundation of the food assistance safety net. It provides benefits to qualifying families and supports markets for agricultural products. With program costs of $31 billion in fiscal 2005, it is the country's largest food assistance program. Using normal retail marketing channels, the Food Stamp Program provides qualified low-income households with increased purchasing power to acquire food. It offers the only form of assistance available nationwide to most households on the basis of financial need only, irrespective of family type, age, or disability. For many low-income households, the program is an important source of purchasing power. For a typical low-income family with children, food stamps provide about 25 percent of the family's total purchasing power."

The Amber Waves article also noted that, "The positive effect of the Food Stamp Program on food expenditures has been extensively analyzed and confirmed in many studies, with much of the research using large national surveys. But increased food spending does not necessarily lead to improved nutrition. The effect of increased food expenditures on household availability of food energy and nutrients is mixed. Early studies of the program found an effect on certain vitamins and minerals, while more recent studies of the program as it is currently structured show increases in the household availability of food energy and protein. Earlier studies indicate that the program may increase children's intakes of vitamins and minerals, but these findings were not replicated in the most recent studies.

"The most thorough studies of food assistance programs suggest mixed nutrition effects. Caution must be used in interpreting results, positive or negative, from most nutritional studies of food assistance programs. One cannot logically infer that food assistance programs have no nutritional effects from studies that fail to demonstrate positive effects."