Food Insecurity and Obesity: The Paradox that Affects More Than Just the Poor

Why is there a correlation between food insecurity and obesity? It appears to be a paradox; is it really? I was directed today to an insightful infographic posted on the blog of Registered Dietitian Brooke Schantz. At the bottom of this post, I’ve placed the “Nourish to Flourish”¬†infographic from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Click on it to see it larger. Because I teach GED prep classes in a supportive housing facility, I am in a position to get a sense of the day-to-day lives of people who have dealt with low income and even homelessness. They feel fortunate to have a place to live in well-maintained buildings. They receive various forms of public assistance which are managed by in-house case workers. I’ve written before that most of the people I meet in this environment are seriously obese.

In the state of Illinois, the monthly amount of assistance available through the SNAP program to an individual is $189. The amount per person goes DOWN for families. Benefits for a family of four will have about $155 to spend per person each month. An income below 130% of the Federally-determined poverty line is the eligibility requirement. For an individual, that would be about $15,000. That’s the equivalent of the before-tax income for a person working a 40-hour week at the Federal minimum wage level of $7.25/hour. These figures explain why a person can be working a full-time job and still be at poverty level and eligible for public assistance. Essentially, taxpayers are making it possible for employers to pay sub-subsistence wages.

States can add their own eligibility requirements. In my home state of Florida, SNAP recipients must work at least 20 hours a week or they can only receive benefits for three months in a three year period. So if you’re having a tough time finding a job in the Sunshine State, be prepared to starve.

Take a look at items #4 and 5 in the bottom panel of the infographic. They display a heart-breaking statistic: Half of all the people who benefit from SNAP assistance are children. Millions saw their benefits reduced last November when a recession-era increase was not extended. As Congress wrangles over the Farm Bill, more reductions could deal further blows to the food insecurity experienced by millions of adults and children.

What would you buy if you could only spend $189 on food for an entire month? Seedless grapes, Fuji apples, and Roma tomatoes would probably not ease your sense of worry; you might reach for the biggest box of store-brand macaroni and cheese, the kind with that fluorescent powder instead of cheese sauce. A package of fresh chicken breasts might be a good idea but you could get more meals out of that “party pizza” brand on sale at five pizzas for $10. A big loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a package of that bologna that isn’t labeled “beef” will make you feel like you’d be covered for several days. After all, that kind of bread stays mysteriously soft for a long time. What to have for breakfast? Get a big bag of that weird off-brand cereal, that kind that’s always on the bottom shelf.

When you think about it, it becomes easy to see how families dealing with food insecurity can also struggle with obesity. Look below at that infographic again and note the first three panels that cover how poor nutrition caused by food insecurity affects children. They experience health and developmental problems; they perform poorly in school and can develop behavioral problems. All these factors can contribute significantly to the possibility that children disadvantaged by food insecurity may never be able to pull themselves out of the lower income ranks.

What does this mean for those of us who struggle with our weight? Relevant facts emerge. First, that eating on a small budget is a notoriously easy way to gain weight. If you’ve experienced a change in your economic status since the crash of 2008, you may have found it more difficult to make changes to your diet. This can worsen the overall anxiety you may experience over what you’re eating. Being able to shop for food by quality and nutritional content is something of a luxury and more of a challenge when your budget is a bit tighter.

And there’s a very unfortunate reality that all of us know but hate to acknowledge: Being fat holds you back. It’s not fair, it’s not even rational, but we all know weight bias is real. Nowhere is this worse than how VICIOUSLY poor and overweight people are judged. Their weight is viewed as some kind of “proof” that they must be gaming the system to eat indulgently. Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert has insisted just that when he whined that his constituents report to him that poor people are eating lavishly on government handouts:

“From the amount of obesity in this country, by people we’re told do not have enough to eat, it does seem like we can have a debate about this issue without allegations about wanting to slap down or starve children.”

Gohmert went on to argue that slashing SNAP benefits was “not evil” and why? Because he views overweight as proof that poor people are actually eating indulgently!

We all know that overweight makes people make assumptions about what you’re eating. They even want to believe you lie about what you eat. We can find evidence in other aspects of our culture to see how deep and pervasive this bias is. You know what is the truth for you. It is a truth you may share with others.

Food Insecurity and obesity


    • JoAnn on January 29, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Truly shameful.

    1. When you do look, it’s easy to see what these people are really eating because they can’t afford anything else. Eating better nutritional quality is easier when you have a budget above poverty level. And I didn’t even touch on the time involved to figure out what you’re going to buy and to cook and clean up.

      It’s shockingly easy to get fat on very cheap food!!

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