July 29, 2008

We Are What We Eat

But it's what we're not eating that counts.

I know we're in the middle of a discussion on affordable housing, but for just a brief moment I'd like to talk about our earlier topic, Food & Nutrition. An article ran in the Washington Post today that (on top of the merit of featuring Bread for the City) had the added bonus of opening up a really good topic that doesn't get discussed too often: why is it so important that food pantries give out healthy food?

Our long-time readers will remember that rates of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes are highest in low-income communities. Judging by some of the bizarre comments left on the WaPo article, many people still find the link between poverty and obesity counter-intuitive, thinking that if a person is truly hungry, they should be starving to death. They're surprised to learn that the poorest among us are, by contrast, having a number of health problems dealing with weight.

The key to understanding this puzzle is to change the assumption between obesity and eating well. Malnutrition takes a number of forms, and one of the most serious indicators of a dangerous diet is obesity. How large a person is, in these circumstances, doesn't have much to do with the quantity of the food being consumed, but the overall amount of empty calories that comes with only being able to afford the very cheapest foods. Hostess snacks, greasy chips, soda, and a number of other items are significantly less expensive than fruits and vegetables. For a person who is scraping for every dollar, the rift between foods that are filling and cheap, and healthy foods is one that cannot be crossed.

That's the reason why it is such a great thing that Bread for the City and a number of other food distribution sites are starting to really take on the assumptions we have been operating under, and also those of the people we serve. On top of that, I thought it was so important that we spent a month and a half on this blog extensively discussing this topic.

Congratulations to Lori Aratani for hitting on a very good subject, and for the extensive research she was able to do. I just hope that it leads to the bigger discussions we as a nation need to have about the way we're thinking about poverty.

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