SEATTLE – For years now, Americans have been growing fatter. Studies show that the poor are even more likely than the average person to be obese.
One researcher blames the weight problems among the low-income and poor on government programs designed to keep them from going hungry, saying there’s too much focus on high-calorie intake and not enough – or any – on teaching healthy eating habits.
"In a time of mass obesity, encouraging the poor to consume more food makes no sense at all," said the researcher, University of Maryland Professor Douglas Besharov.
Those who give out food stamps disagree with Besharov’s argument, and defend their aid programs for the poor.
"I have not seen any evidence that our programs cause or contribute to obesity," said Roberto Salazar, administrator of the federal Food and Nutrition Services.
Obesity, defined as being 30 percent heavier than one’s ideal body weight, has grown throughout the country, across every demographic. Studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that the overall obesity rate among Americans shot up in the 1990s by 57 percent – from about 12 percent in 1991 to 19 percent in 1999.
The trend is showing no sign of slowing down. An Oct. 8, 2002, report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed new data from a 1999-2000 survey that found obesity continued to skyrocket during the late 1990s among all ages – with nearly 59 million, or almost a third, of Americans classified as obese.
Many of them fall into the lowest income bracket of the population. Citing research by the USDA, the Surgeon General, the American Dietary Association and other agencies, Besharov said America’s neediest are far more likely to be at risk of death and disease because of overeating than starvation
Food stamps and other federal meal programs, he said, were launched at a time when hunger was a serious threat to the underprivileged. Today most of the poor have no problem getting enough to eat, according to Besharov.
In spite of the fact that millions of Americans have stopped receiving public assistance, the government spent $40 billion on food programs last year, more than ever before.
But Salazar doesn’t believe the government’s way of funding and administering meal programs should be blamed for weight problems.
"It’s a function of what people eat, how they eat and when they eat – not just how much they eat," he said.
Besharov said that how much people eat is directly connected to how much they’re given.
"When we give poor families food stamps instead of cash, we know that they will consume 20 percent more food," Besharov said. "That might be great at a time of hunger and malnutrition, but at a time of obesity, that’s a mistake."
The overeating epidemic is growing fastest among poor kids: 16 percent of low-income children are either overweight or obese, twice the rate of other children. That puts federally-funded school breakfast and lunch programs – which are mandated to provide 60 percent of students’ total daily caloric intake – under the microscope.
Besharov thinks the government should continue to fund food programs but needs to change the emphasis from quantity and caloric intake to nutrition counseling and healthy eating habits.
Some of the federal money does go toward nutrition and exercise counseling, and at least one plan, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, provides vouchers for fruits and vegetables.
The problem is that the program only offers coupons of between $10 and $20 per year to participants – and many of those who would qualify as recipients don’t bother to apply.
But biting the hand that feeds the poor is not the answer, say critics of the research on links between food stamps and obesity – and would only hurt the impoverished instead of helping them. In addition, the federal government can only do so much to ensure that their aid is being used healthily.
"We certainly don’t control or dictate all the food choices that Americans make," Salazar said. "It would be unreasonable."