By K. I. Hope
America is gaining weight and the most vulnerable populations are those with low levels of education and income, as well as those with black or Hispanic heritage. The most obese state in the country, Mississippi, also happens to be the poorest. And with the rates of obesity increasing in 16 states last year and declining in none, America’s diet is influencing policy, politics and programs.
Unfortunately, the system is working against people, instead of for them. An obesity study released this week through a joint effort by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reveals further evidence of a brewing crisis, not least in the area of food stamps.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization monthly Food Price Index for June 2011, world food prices increased by more than 39% June 2010. This comes at a time when more Americans than ever are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the program for food stamps. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the program added 17 million people in the last four years.
What was once viewed as a social stigma is now an economic necessity for one in seven Americans.
With the influx of food stamp participants, it’s important to note a recent study by Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research that found food stamp recipients have a higher body mass index than non-recipients.
Research scientist Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study, says the cost of healthy food is a significant barrier to Americans on food stamps. “It would be very difficult for a shopper to regularly buy healthy, nutritious food on that budget.”
Fast food stamps
Even as the rate of obesity is increasing in unprecedented amounts, junk food companies are lobbying to increase consumers’ ability to purchase fast food.
Yum! Brands, owner of fast food restaurants KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, is lobbying to make food stamps a form of payment in Kentucky, the sixth most obese state in the country. Only three other states – Arizona, California, and Michigan – currently allow food stamps as legal tender.
Allowing residents of Kentucky, which is also the fifth worst state for fruit and vegetable consumption, greater access to nutritionally-devoid products would be extremely detrimental to their health.
The main argument for allowing food stamps at fast food restaurants is that it provides equal access to food. However, the Centers for Disease Control offers grants to states to fight obesity and expand options for low-or-no income persons, which includes community gardens, new or improved grocery options and healthier independent stores like mom-and-pop cornershops. An increase in these options would eliminate the need for anyone to ingest fast food, regardless of income.
In addition, the debate is raising the issue of how to actually define “food” itself. In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is currently at odds with food manufacturers, who are outraged over his proposal to blacklist sugary drinks and pop from food stamp purchases.
A recent New York Times article, “Soft Drink Industry Fights Proposed Food Stamp Ban,” states that the non-profit Feeding America, an “antihunger” group, opposes Bloomberg’s plan. Feeding America is actually governed by a board of directors composed of executives from companies including Kraft, ConAgra, Mars, Inc., and General Mills – companies whose unhealthy products are composed mainly of the ingredients Bloomberg is determined to eliminate from eligibility for food stamps.
Federal subsidies help
The flagship products of these corporations receive billions in federal subsidies to keep costs artificially low and the products on every shelf. Unhealthy food isn’t cheaper because it’s less nutrient-dense; it’s cheaper because the government subsidizes its production — and that’s something many Americans simply don’t know about.
The Environmental Working Group reports that the federal government subsidized $261.9 billion dollars between 1995-2010, with the majority of the money going to a select few producers of crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. Other major recipients include the meat and dairy industries. Fruits and vegetables, by comparison, receive 0.37% of subsidies, despite federal nutrition recommendations advocating that one-third of daily food intake be fruits and vegetables.
In 2010, the USDA spent $64.7 billion dollars on food stamps. The same year, the USDA also gave $15 billion dollars in farm subsidies, including $1.7 billion to corn crops, which manufacture the main ingredient in soda — one of the most unhealthy items on many Americans’ daily menus.
At a time when food prices are rising rapidly and health is declining, the federal government is giving money to continue producing products that contribute to illness and obesity, while simultaneously giving people the means to buy these products.
It is as if the government is making the drugs, giving them away, and then wondering why everyone is an addict.
Easy to ignore, the obesity epidemic is often reduced to ridicule in a congress divided over issues like war and unemployment. But this is a crucial juncture, when the convergence of government programs, spending and corporate lobbying is colliding in a way that will impact everyone in America.
What we eat is harming our bodies and our budget. There aren’t any people profiting, only corporations.