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New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Food Sovereignty and the End of Obesity

March 10, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Guest Author

America’s Paradox: Getting Heavier and Growing Hungrier

by Kat Asselin, Kendra Broadwater, and Mollie Tarte

In a world of climbing food costs, media outlets are predicting the downfall of Americans increasingly subject to the diseases of obesity while concurrently talking about the epidemic of food insecurity that has only worsened in the decades since the so-called Green Revolution.

Obesity is clinically defined as a body mass index in excess of 30, but other studies and models suggest that there is genetic diversity in body types and a strong correlation with century-old dietary practices and co-evolution of human bodies and heritage cuisines. Over the past 30 years, the proportion of obese adults has climbed in most states, in some cases from less than 10% to more than 30% today.  The attention given to the ever-expanding American waistline has been impossible to ignore.

You can even see this drama unfold on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) website. The map clearly illustrates the fact that the poorest states in the nation are those with the highest levels of obesity, and other data presented on the website confirm that levels are significantly higher in minority and low-income populations. Blacks are 51% more likely to be obese than whites, Hispanics are 21% more likely and obesity levels are significantly higher in predominately low-income counties than middle to high-income counties across the country[i].

To put the problem of hunger into perspective, if you live in an urban area, it is likely that you will see someone every day who receives aid in the form of food benefits. We’re producing (and wasting) more food than ever, yet one of eight people in the United States is utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the food stamp program)[ii]. The groups that have the highest incidence of obesity have also the greatest risk of being food insecure: impoverished and minority communities.  How can we be getting heavier and going hungry at the same time? While this question has been addressed in a number of different forums, we’re looking to focus on the basic causes of this paradox and possible solutions that we can initiate.

Maybe it is an artifact of the concept of American Individualism, but often these problems are presented as a problem of the individual who is obese or poor; the affected is lazy or weak-willed. However, this perspective is not very well supported in neither the science nor the study of trends in the population.  This is not simply a question of individual will; if it were, efforts like SNAP would stop hunger and the billions pumped into the diet industry would eradicate obesity. In reality, this paradox has arisen from the structure of the national agrifoods system (which is one product that we have been painfully successful in exporting) and our misguided attempts to correct the problems that have been borne from it.

So, one logical conclusion here would be that we don’t really have a problem with eating too much or not having enough to eat, it’s simply malnourishment in the most basic sense of the word. We don’t have enough of the “right things” to eat, or alternatively, the “right things” are expensive or difficult to prepare. This is where the heart of food sovereignty lies, in what we consider the “right” foods: deep, slow, and local. How are we going to fix these problems in order to produce and consume the “right” food with meaningful, likely and lasting solutions?

Our agrifood systems and how we look at nutrition: the heart of the problem

Why is it that those who are at the highest risk for hunger (low-income and minority populations) are also at the highest risk for obesity? Such an obvious paradox seems like good material for a media sensation, but for some reason the media doesn’t seem too keen on discussing this particular aspect of the obesity problem. Nor does the CDCP website, which, on its “Causes and Consequences of Obesity” page, defines the cause of obesity as a “caloric imbalance,” and quickly notes that, “Behavior and environment play a large role causing people to be overweight and obese. These are the greatest areas for prevention and treatment actions.”[iii] It goes on to describe ways for individuals to change their behavior and environments so that they will be more conducive to a healthy lifestyle.[iv] Most of the advice the site gives are along the lines of “eat less and exercise more, and encourage those around you to do the same” and seems to suggest that obesity is caused by a lack of individual will power to eat better and exercise.

Does this mean that poorer, non-white people are more likely to have inadequate will power, and thus are more likely to be obese? Certainly not! There are many different factors that contribute to higher levels of obesity in those who are at a higher risk for food-insecurity. One factor that the CDCP website fails to acknowledge is that for some reason, unhealthy food tends to be cheaper than healthy food, and the disparity is deepening.[v] Why is it that buying a burger and fries from McDonald’s is cheaper than buying fresh ingredients from a local farmers’ market and making dinner at home? Certainly less processing, shipping, packaging, and other inputs went into the homemade meal, so why doesn’t this translate into lower cost?

Again, there are many reasons behind the similarly paradoxical truth that highly processed foods are more accessible to low-income and minority populations than whole, unprocessed foods. One that the CDCP, as a government agency, is probably particularly unwilling to admit, is that highly processed foods are cheaper than unprocessed fresh fruits and vegetables because the government promotes overproduction of the ingredients that are made into processed foods. This is a consequence of the high subsidies that are given to farmers who grow corn, soy, wheat, and other ingredients that make up most processed foods (in some highly adulterated and unrecognizable form). The terms of the agreement are simple: the more of a crop a farmer grows, the more subsidies the farmer receives from the government. In a subsidy-less world, farmers would regulate yearly production of these crops by the laws of supply and demand (generally speaking) — if prices (and thus demand) were high, they would grow more, if prices were low, they would grow less of the commodity crop and diversify to other crops. But in a world of subsidies, it does not make sense for farmers to abide by these laws. It makes sense for them to grow more of the commodity crop every year and receive the government subsidy.[vi]

The consequence of this is over production. Too much corn, soy, and other subsidized commodity crops are produced, and prices fall. In swoop the food companies, who buy the commodity crops at low prices and figure out cleaver ways to transform them into the wide variety of processed foods we now see on the shelves of every supermarket. However, due to the over production of commodity crops, food companies suddenly face the problem of having more calories on the market than people really need to eat. Of course, this threatens profits. In order to avoid losses, food companies must get people to consume more calories. To do this, they use marketing — lots of it.[vii]

While all races and economic classes are probably equally affected by the bombardment of food company advertisements, low income and minority populations are still at a higher risk of diet-related diseases because they cannot afford to buy healthy, unprocessed foods. Still others may reside in “food deserts” where fresh food is not just too expensive but literally unavailable, such as in inner cities where the food source is limited to the shelves of the nearest gas station mini-mart.

Wasting resources by focusing on the wrong solutions

Food assistance, defined by the US government, is known as “TheUnited States Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), historically and commonly known as the Food Stamp Program, is afederal assistance program that provides assistance to low- and no-income people and families living in the U.S. Items allowed to purchase with food stamps include: bread & cereal, fruit & vegetables, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products. [viii]

According to the USDA, the average monthly allotment was about $101 per person and about $227 per household in FY 2008.[ix] SNAP is designed to increase food and income mobility. In theory, SNAP allows families to spend the money originally intended for food on other necessities. In reality, the $227 per household allotment does not suffice to feed an individual. According to The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute immigrants cannot receive food stamps, however “children of undocumented immigrants can get SNAP/Food Stamps if they are citizens or legal permanent residents.”[x] Other eligible individuals disabled legal immigrants, refugees, asylees, and deportees.[xi] When the “per capita gross national income ranges from about $1,700 to $9,990 a year” for low income groups, such as migrant families.  It is not surprising that malnutrition is prevalent in these communities given such poverty.[xii] It is nearly impossible for families to eat healthy with that range of income. As result many are forced to eat food that is cheaper and often less nutritious. Their forced eating habits lead to diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Extending food and medical aid to migrant families will ensure global economic stability. Bauer (2010) states that, “At least six in 10 of our country’s farm workers are undocumented immigrants…. They help produce billions of dollars’ worth of grapes, tomatoes, strawberries, melons, beans and other grocery store staples…. Deporting all of these immigrants, according to one recent study, would leave a $2.6 trillion hole in the U.S. economy over the next decade”[xiii]. Our food supply depends on migrant families, thus why we should be concerned with well being of migrant workers.

In the long run, food distribution is not a viable model for sustainability.  This is seen by “the number of Americans receiving food stamps reached 43 million in November 2010, the highest number since the SNAP program began in 1939.”  Research suggests, “The lack of affordable housing in urban areas means that money that would have been spent on food is spent on housing expenses.”[xiv] This half-century old model needs to be revisited so that a new system that helps communities provide for themselves can be adopted. However, unless our food system is reformed to allow low-income and minority populations access to an adequate amount of healthy food, supplemental measures like the SNAP program will have to continue.

Moving from treating the symptoms to the cause

The following is a compilation of solutions to the problem of malnutrition in it’s current form and into the future. These are a few of the essential steps to take if we intend to achieve food sovereignty.

* First, as a guiding principle, we need to begin by changing the perspective of the problem. Working on rebuilding agrifood infrastructure has to be a community endeavor and not based solely on individual efforts.

* Building strong, resilient producer to consumer networks is a necessary aspect of a more sovereign food system. This can be done through community-supported agriculture, including urban farming, pea patches and farmers’ markets.  Ultimately, such measures would lead to fewer food deserts and hopefully lower prices for local produce.  Using the social capital found in community, religious, youth or cultural organizations we can empower local food movements. This has been seen in efforts like Los Angeles’ South Central Farm and Seattle’s University of Washington Student Farm.

* Funding for program like SNAP and other food aid projects need to be reallocated to more comprehensive and effective programs that facilitate community food sovereignty rather than continued dependence on government aid. We need creative solutions to end hunger, without pushing people to rely on low-nutrient foods.  What if we start to pay local farms to sell goods in urban communities? What if we provide space or resources to open Farmers’ Markets?

* Another huge dilemma, both figuratively and literally, is the amount of food that is thrown away every year in the United States. We should emphasize conservation of food, perhaps through donation or cooperative networks so unwanted food can get to those who need it.

* Perhaps the most important step on behalf of the national government will be modification of the Farm Bill. A few of the changes that are necessary include lowering commodity crops subsidies especially for large producers and incentivizing the diversification of crops and reformation of land management practices, such as the allotment of a certain percentage of farmland to conservation. Rewarding perennial polycultures, agroecology, and other food-related Traditional Environmental Knowledge would strongly improve our agrifoods system.

Obesity, hunger and diet-related disease rates will never decline if we continue to blame individuals for their unhealthy eating habits, when the cause of these diseases are no more the fault of the individual as is being born in to one culture instead of another. Blaming individuals for their obesity or other diet-related diseases will only foster self-deprecation and further damage the people and communities that need assistance the most. We must abandon the kinds of discourse that reinforce such detrimental fallacies and instead focus on solutions that address the true causes of hunger, obesity, and diabetes.


[i] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Obesity Trends (2011) http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html

[ii] United States Department of Agriculture. “SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM:  NUMBER OF PERSONS PARTICIPATING”. (2 March 2011).  http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/29SNAPcurrPP.htm

[iii] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Causes and Consequences. (2011) http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html

[iv] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Causes and Consequences. (2011) http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html

[v] Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Cost of Healthy Eating. (March 2009)

[vi] Environmental Working Group.Government’s Continued Bailout of Corporate Agriculture (2010) http://farm.ewg.org/summary.php

[vii] Nestle, Marion.The Center Aisles: Processed. In: What to Eat? (North Point Press: 2006)

[viii] United States Department of Agriculture. Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program. (Washington D.C.: GPO, October 2010). http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm

[ix] United States Department of Agriculture. Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program. (Washington D.C.: GPO, October 2010). http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm

[x] Massachusetts Law Reform Group. “10 Myths and Facts about SNAP/Food Stamp Benefits and Immigrants”. (May 2009). http://www.masslegalhelp.org/income-benefits/food-stamps-immigrants-myths-and-facts

[xi] Social Security Administration. Food Stamp Facts. (Washington D.C.: GPO, September 2008). http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/10101.html

[xii] Bauer, Mary and Mónica Ramírez. Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry. Southern Poverty Law Center.  (2010).

[xiii] Bauer, Mary and Mónica Ramírez. Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry. Southern Poverty Law Center.  (2010).

[xiv] Rossi, Peter H. Feeding the Poor: Assessing Federal Food Aid. Washington: AEI Press, 1998 p.28

The authors are all students in Devon G. Peña’s winter quarter course at the University of Washington, “Food Sovereignty.” This essay originally appeared on the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is reprinted here by permission.

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