Poverty and Obesity
In impoverished communities (in developed countries) there is frequently less access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and safe recreation areas for children to play in, and larger number of fast food restaurants. This combination, combined with lower income and therefore lower food budgets, creates a situation where obesity rates in adults and sadly children can be very high.
Childhood obesity has risen dramatically in North America in the last generation. Overweight children can lead to adult obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and fractures related to obesity – all of which result in higher costs for medical attention (for the individual/family and the government). According to Ana Garcia from The New York Academy of Medicine, “one in three New York children is obese or overweight and prone to developing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As these children grow up, New York State will spend an estimated $136.3 billion from 2011 to 2020 to treat diseases whose underlying cause is obesity.” (From a letter in The New York Times) That’s a lot of overweight children.
But what can be done? Brett Taylor on the CBC News Health website suggests the cost of exercise (organized sports, etc) for children is too high in Canada for low-income families to afford. That the cost of a television is cheaper than a year of hockey or swimming lessons. He suggests building more government-funded recreational facilities. A lot of comments to the article say kids used to play outside and ride their bike, so why do they need money to do this. I’m in two minds about this. I totally agree that being active can be free or cheap and that kids need to spend more time running around and less time playing video games. Unfortunately a lot of low-income neighbourhoods are not safe to play on the streets in. I live in Parkdale, and road hockey in the middle of Jameson Avenue is impossible. There was also a shooting on that street a few months ago. Not to say kids should be kept inside, but gone are the days that you can just let your kids run free around the house/apartment and come back five hours later (or at least not in the city – this could still happen in smaller communities).
Then there’s the debate between whether fast food or home-cooked food is cheaper. The more I read, the more I see all different perspectives from very passionate people. There are those that say that fresh healthy food is cheaper because you can stretch it a long way (ie. make large batches or soup or chili, or use a big bag of lentils for numerous dishes). Then there are those that argue that cheap food is fatty and therefore fills you up more. Zoe Williams from The Guardian argues that on a penny-per-calorie basis, fast food is simply cheaper:
I think there’s an element of projection here, where people who can afford to eat well – and do – still secretly yearn for a Big Mac, and it’s their own yearning rather than political deliberation that makes them think they’re looking at a lack of willpower from the McDonald’s classes. But this has nothing to do with willpower.
I’m not sure I agree with this, although I do enjoy the way she put that. I worry all the time that I project things on other people because of my background. I guess we all do to an extent. I don’t think you could buy a meal for a family of four at McDonald’s for less than $20. I just went to No Frills the other day, spent $20 on veggies, fruit, and whole grains and with a little creativity and cooking, I have healthy food for myself for a week (which, even if I had a family of four, means I’ve spent way less on many meals of healthy food than the one meal of crap).
During my vegan month I realized just how much our diet affects our moods, emotions, our body functions, what our skin looks like. Eating crappy food causes you to be slower, less motivated, feel worse about yourself. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course, if you are working two jobs in order to pay the bills, it’s going to be hard to spend a lot of time cooking healthy meals. But making a big soup only takes thirty minutes and not very much effort. It can be done.
My friend Jenn, when suggesting healthy living as a topic for my last month, told me that there is a small town in the States that is initiating a by-law saying that no more fast food restaurants can build in their town because the obesity and poverty rates are so high that people can’t make appropriate choices on their own. This is scary.
I don’t know what the answer is, but the link between obesity and poverty is a real thing. If you’re already depressed from not having money, eating an unhealthy diet of sugary processed foods is not going to help you get motivated. But if your depressed, you want easy, cheap, filling, comfort food. And then what habits are you teaching your children? It really is a vicious cycle.