Fat, Sick, and Poor (2016)

*written with the help of my speech coach, Avi Jaggi

Via Unsplash

Last year, my class and I visited Pennsylvania to see historic sites in the city of brotherly love. But after arriving, I found myself loving only one thing, FOOD! It was everywhere. McDonald’s, Arby’s, Wendy’s.  And all of it was Shabrina’s. Instead of studying details of the Liberty bell, I was captivated by Taco Bell. But after a quick check in with my fitness pal, I realized I was in major trouble. Oh, It’s a fitness app. You wouldn’t know. It’s ok, I didn’t either. I was just looking for a friend. You see, the reason why I hadn’t even thought about fruits or vegetables was because there weren’t any around.  That’s because Philadelphia, like thousands of inner cities, is a food desert, which are low-income areas that lack grocery stores.

Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty and Prosperity Program argues, obesity and hunger are two branches of the same tree, Povertree. Poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau notes, the 10 poorest states are also states with the highest obesity rates. But, the relationship between economic disparity and hunger, as a result of food deserts, is often neglected in discussions of obesity. And this neglect is fueling a health epidemic amongst some of the most vulnerable communities in our country.  We must shift the dialogue when discussing obesity and focus on the very real impact of food deserts. So today let’s examine the causes, effects, and solutions of obesity within impoverished neighborhoods, because for the  23.5 million people who live in food deserts, the dollar menu is all they have. And it’s costing them their lives. 

What do DJ Khaled, Kim Kardashian, and our politicians have in common? They think people actually believe them. But you can believe my two causes: government misunderstanding and food industries exploiting the poor. 

First, our government completely misses the point when it comes to health in impoverished neighborhoods. Also women, transgender folk, and pandas. But I’m only one person. You see, they completely ignore food deserts, instead blaming a lack of exercise as the prime factor for obesity within impoverished communities. However, the New York Times of June 16 , 2015 and my hot personal trainer explain, food plays a much larger role in weight gain than physical activity. Our government’s approach to obesity is not only misguided but even potentially dangerous. Because as the Huffington Post of March 9th 2015 argues, it underestimates the impact of caloric intake. Marion Nestle, New York University nutrition professor, contends government initiatives advocating for physical activity, such as Let’s Move!, are strategic decisions to remove all responsibility while simultaneously appease the  food industry. These campaigns simply send the message that those living in poverty just need to get off their butts and do some exercise. Unfortunately, it is impossible to outrun a bad diet. Trust me, I’ve tried. Just kidding, I don’t run. 

Second, the food industry capitalizes on the helplessness of the poor. Due to their low prices and high calorie count, junk food becomes an ideal option for people on a budget, and these corporations are well aware of that. In fact, The Washington Post of November 11th, 2009 reports large companies like Coca-Cola and Mars spent over $10 million into lobbying Congress into allowing food stamps to be used for their products, proving these companies are specifically targeting those below the poverty line.  It is not a coincidence that citizens of food deserts have nearly 3 times as much exposure to fast food than those in wealthier neighborhoods. Those living in poverty fall victim to a deliberate system planned, executed, and upheld by America’s largest corporations. It’s Taco Hell.

Just like the number of Chipotle burritos I have every day, we have two effects: a health epidemic that is costing us all  and children suffering. Ok, I have 4 burritos everyday but I only have time for 2 effects. 

First, as obesity continues to rise, so does the cost of health care. And we’re all affected by this. American Progress of May 21, 2012 reports obesity-related health-care costs are paid in large part by all of us through taxes.  Furthermore, the Mayo Clinic confirms in 2015, health care costs due to obesity totaled to 3 trillion dollars; the highest in the world. In addition to citizens, businesses suffer an economic loss as well due to absenteeism, or taking time off from work to seek medical attention. Since various health hazards tag along with obesity, doctor visits and sick days continue to rise. In 2009, the loss of profit due to obesity on the average company accumulated a staggering $285,000 dollars. 

 Second, the cycle of obesity continues to rise in poor households, as children grow addicted to junk food. Take the story of Blanca Salas, a single mother raising two children living on food stamps. Her motto has always been “quantity over quality”.  Unable to provide healthy, nutritious food for her children, today her 13 year old daughter is in the early stage of diabetes and her 9 year old son suffers high cholesterol and blood pressure. Furthermore, A 2014 Ohio State University study found that children who ate more fast food scored less in math, reading, and science. The researchers concluded that the prevalence of food deserts exacerbates the poor performance in predominantly low-income schools. 

Unlike Wendy’s Apple Berry Salad, we do have some fresh solutions: the government should create substantial initiatives and we must advocate for healthier options.

First, on a legislative level, our government must recognize unhealthy food as a major contributor to obesity and introduce initiatives that benefits those who truly need it. The New York Academy of Medicine found that an investment of $10 per person to provide healthier food could save the country more than $16 billion annually. Mayor Bloomberg of New York is clearly inspired by this fact. He transformed what used to be a junk food heaven into a market of healthy options. Food stalls are a great business in New York and supply the large majority of junk food in the city. Bloomberg replaced the junk food with fruits and vegetables and had the same vendors sell them. Due to the high demand and production,  he could afford to bring down the prices, making it affordable for everyone. States all around the country should attempt to implement programs such as his  in order to minimize or  even eliminate food deserts.  .

Second, we must advocate for laws that require the food industry to have healthier options. In 2014, the FDA passed a law that required the calorie count to be displayed to the public. Communities should  take this a step further by demanding that there be a certain amount of nutrition in the majority of their food items, This would lower the unhealthy chemicals and empty calories that get consumed on a daily basis. Fortunately, this would benefit those living in food deserts the most since those are the areas where junk food is  the most concentrated. 

Upon returning home, my mom forced me to go on a detox. But even after all that cleansing, the effect of doritos locos tacos was still upon me.  After having digestion problems for weeks, I realized that I should help those who were also going through what I was. So I started planning my own food chain: SIHOF- Shabrina’s International House of Organic Foods. Wow, it sounds a lot less cooler when I say it out loud. Today, we discussed the causes and effects and solutions of obesity within impoverished communities. Our country constantly prides itself on the equality of opportunity, but those living at the bottom don’t even get a chance to eat right. Perhaps with dialogue we can raise awareness and provide help where it is actually needed. That sounds finger likin good.


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