Kennedy says welfare programs are not increasing obesity
This Medical News Today column looks at a new report debunking a popular myth that poverty is actually leading to an increase in the rates of obesity in the United States. I addressed this issue somewhat back in September 2006 in this blog post which may be worth revisiting in light of this new report.
The lead author of the report is Eileen T. Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at the Boston, MA-based Tufts University, who looked at data regarding the participants in such government-funded programs as Food Stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (aka WIC) which come directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With doubling obesity rates resulting in a tripling in the costs of Medicare, this is a poignant topic for serious discussion.
It's interesting to note that Kennedy worked at the USDA for seven years prior to her tenure at Tufts University which may give her a more optimistic view of the work they are doing there since she was a part of it for so long. Nevertheless, she says the government has made great progress at helping underprivileged families get adequate nutrition to feed their families well enough despite their lack of income.
We've discussed the issue of affordability of healthy food for the poor before and whether obesity should be confronted as a society or if it is the personal responsiblity of the individual. The bottom line on obesity-fighting efforts is that they be reasonably realistic to actually work, especially among the poor.
But the lingering school of thought that still exists out there about low-income families has been that the nutritionally poor food options that are available to them on such programs is actually leading participants to gain weight. That was the purpose of creating the report entitled "Creating Healthy States: Building Healthier Nutrition Programs" (download the PDF file) which was presented with input from both Democrats and Republicans through the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.
In that report, Kennedy and her co-authors proposed specific public policy changes in the Food Stamp and WIC programs to zero in on the underlying issues that are impacting the health and weight of the participants. But she was quick to point out you cannot lay the onus for obesity at the feet of the people receiving government assistance.
"The population as a whole is struggling with overweight and obesity, not just those who are enrolled in federally-funded nutrition programs," she said.
Her research into this specific issue bears out that assertion because both programs improved the nutritional value of the foods the participants ate prior to going on welfare. In fact, the only group of WIC partipants who ate more calories than before were ones who were pregnant, which is desirable for the sake of the weight and health of the newborn babies.
The authors of the study note an interesting statistic over a 25+ year period regarding people getting Food Stamps.
"Data indicate that from 1976 to 2002, the probability of a woman being overweight grew the least among food stamp recipients," the report explained.
Recognizing that improvements in the diet of those people who are benefitting from Food Stamps and WIC are still sorely needed, Kennedy knows there is very inadequate education about healthy living that is simply perpetuating the problem even further.
"Many low-income households face what is known as the 'double burden of disease' meaning that those who are food-insecure are often overweight or obese," Kennedy remarked. "This creates an opportunity for federally-funded nutrition programs to restructure goals to address obesity, which is now a more prevalent problem for low-income households than under-nutrition."
But there is a problem that comes into play when you start talking about conducting "federally-funded nutrition programs." Guess who the federal government is? No, it's not those politicians in Washington on Capitol Hill pretending they have these big stacks of free money to spend at will and it's not even the President of the United States of America. It's YOU and ME! WE pay the bill for any such programs, so shouldn't WE have a say in what makes up those progams?
Try as they may (and they do try), the government will not find an answer to obesity. We can turn the tide of obesity when we stop doing the same failed approach to weight loss over and over again (isn't that the definition of INSANITY?!) and start taking a serious look at other nutritional approaches that REALLY work--like livin' la vida low-carb, maybe? :) Then we'll start making progress in the obesity debate.
So, what does the USDA need to do to bring this problem under control according to Kennedy and her fellow nutrition experts? They propose the federal government empower the leaders of each state with both funding and education to promote healthy living principles to their citizens and to coordinate these efforts for a consistent message about diet, nutrition, fitness, and health in an organized manner. If low-carb is taught alongside low-fat, then I have no problem with that.
Additionally, Kennedy and her team want the USDA to convert to a multi-year renewal from an annual plan for approving Food Stamps to provide more sustainability of benefits rather than the constant disruptions. At the same time, a greater role should be played in providing these assistance participants not just with monetary, but also educational support about what foods are the best options for them in their area. I'm not a big fan of government handout programs, but there could be some benefit if the information provided is not monopolized by the low-fat dogma.
It's a sad fact that many poor families receiving this assistance don't have easy access to grocery stores in their area where healthy foods are as readily available to them. Kennedy believes states should offer supermarket chains tax breaks and special financing to attract these businesses to the low-income neighborhoods. This is an EXCELLENT idea that is already used by states to attract businesses to build new facilities, so why not in poor areas?
They also suggest in the report that states need to offer assistance to farmers' markets to sell their products at a reduced price to low-income families with the government footing the bill for the remainder of the costs. Plus, any unsold produce that would usually be discarded as waste at the local farmers' market should be donated to the poor, Kennedy stated. Food stamps are usually wasted on high-carb garbage junk food, so why not allow them to shop at the farmers' market and get a discount, too? This one makes so much sense.
Calling for more accountability with the taxpayer dollars being spent on Food Stamps and WIC, the authors of the report note that we should be "increasing the purchasing power of WIC and food stamp dollars that are spent on fruits and vegetables or whole-grain items, while decreasing the purchasing power of dollars spent on less-healthy options."
I agree healthy foods should be the focus, although the definition of such should be made explicit. Potatoes are NOT health foods. Sugary fruits and starchy veggies are better than candy and potato chips, but not by much. These foods should be limited as well.
Above everything, Kennedy concluded, is the need to educate the participants in these government programs about the importance of looking for nutrient-dense foods that provide the healthiest ingredients with the lowest number of calories.
"Choosing nutrient-dense foods is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially difficult for families on a budget," she admitted. "However, despite the fact that many people believe that healthful diets cost more money, research has shown that there can be great variability among the price of foods with similar nutrient density."
That's why education is the key because it will enable the government to "to influence their food choices [which] could result in a more nutritious diet for less money." By the way, the most nutrient-dense nutritional approach available today is low-carb living. :)
Kennedy believes forward-thinking is needed among nutrition leaders to help ward off the continuing rise in obesity rates among the participants in the Food Stamp and WIC programs. She is confident that "these programs can play an integral role in preventing obesity."
"There are some exciting activities taking place in many states across the nation," Kennedy exclaimed. "We need to build on these existing initiatives and determine how we can leverage the existing Food Stamp and WIC programs to promote healthier lifestyles."
I can certainly appreciate the efforts that individual states are making to take on this issue of obesity, especially among the poor. But we must come to grips with the reality that low-fat doesn't work for everyone and that low-carb is a viable and healthy option for people to use for weight loss as well.
This is something my home state of South Carolina have ignored. They are not alone, though. Can we simply provide all the information to people and just let them make an educated choice about what is best for them? Am I being unreasonable with my request? If not, then when can we expect to move forward with my proposal to teach low-carb alongside low-fat, hmmm? Now there's a proposal that can make a REAL difference, Ms. Kennedy.
You can e-mail Eileen Kennedy about her report at firstname.lastname@example.org.