A surplus of diet food for the overweight has been a boon for the hungry in Appalachia (search). Once hot and trendy, low-carb Atkins diet foods (search) that never got sold are being shipped to food banks.
Since September, 14 truckloads of Atkins Nutritional bars, shakes and breakfast mixes have been sent to charities that hand out free food.
And if you're desperate, the low-carb bars aren't bad.
"For diet food, it tastes good, but it's not like having a milkshake or a Pepsi," said Eileen Mullins, an eastern Kentucky retiree who lives on a meager fixed income. She also operates a ministry that provides free lodging and food, including the Atkins products, for families of inmates at a federal prison. The free low-carb food helps ensure that no one goes hungry, she says.
Those who follow the food industry say a decline in the public's appetite for low-carb foods is leaving manufacturers with a surplus. Industry estimates indicate the number of Americans following any low-carb diet peaked in February 2004 and has fallen dramatically since then.
Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a food industry research and consulting firm, said many companies overproduced low-carb foods and now are stuck with it.
"The market has just cratered for those products," he said. "Typically when it shows up in food banks, it's got very little commercial value."
Atkins Nutritionals said in a statement that the company routinely donates food to a number of charities.
Ken Slone runs the Christian Appalachian Project warehouse about 25 miles from the spot where President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964. His warehouse has taken in the 14 truckloads of Atkins products for distribution.
Each truckload contains about 1,300 cases of energy bars, shakes and breakfast mixes that are given to churches and other organizations, like the one Mullins runs, that minister to the needy.
"You can't go wrong with giving any kind of food away," said Slone. "When you're feeding people, you're doing a good thing."
The Rev. Brooks Kerrick, founder of Extended Hands Ministries, agrees. His charity serves residents in an area with double-digit unemployment rates.
"The Atkins products have really been a lifesaver for us," he said. "They'll sure keep your belly button from rubbing your backbone."
Even so, the bigger problem facing most of the region is obesity. An Appalachian Regional Commission (search) study last year showed that the mountain region had higher rates of premature deaths caused by heart disease, diabetes and cancer than the nation as a whole and that obesity was more prevalent than in the rest of the country.
"To be honest, I don't know if anyone's going to starve to death, but they will have poor health because of bad nutrition," said the Rev. John Rausch, a Roman Catholic priest who serves on the board of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
A local nutritionist, Carol Stapleton, with the Johnson County Health Department, said the Atkins diet "is not as nutritious as we would like their diet to be. That being said, if people are hungry, then I don't think it would be adverse for them to supplement their diet with that."
Slone said diet products are only a portion of the foods the ministry distributes. He said large companies like Wal-Mart routinely donate canned goods for the needy in Appalachia.
"We distribute everything we get," he said. "It's always a good feeling to help people."