Food Insecurity and the “War on Obesity”   

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Guest Blog Post by Joyce Nadeau, LCSW, School Social Worker

Sarah* comes to my office and appears embarrassed about a request she needs to make.  She is not coming just for herself; she is coming for her family.  A lot rests on her shoulders when both of her parents are unable to provide for her and her brother.  I invite her in and she immediately starts apologizing: “My dad will get paid next week, and I am sorry to ask you again, but can you get us some groceries?”  I immediately remind her that this is no problem. I ask how much they need and how long they will be without.  She again apologizes and talks about the jobs her dad has done and not been paid for.  Again, I remind her that I am happy to help out and it's no trouble at all.  

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Sarah hands me a list which reads “peanut butter, bread, ramen noodles, milk.”  I take her list and thank her and suggest she go get breakfast at the cafe.  She hates to eat at school, but I suggest it anyway.  She is a child in a large body who frequently experiences food insecurity. I remind myself that not all hungry kids look emaciated. I could send her to the local food bank, as it is open on every other Tuesday, but the fresh vegetables are a challenge for her family.  Beets are great, but not if you only have a microwave.  Sarah knows that I will not buy the groceries on her list; instead, I will give her a certificate for a local grocery store.  The list is her way of not asking for too much.

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Sarah stands out in the affluent community she and her family settled in.  They live in one room of a relative’s home.  Sarah and her little brother depend on every resource the community has in order to survive.  However, food is still a significant issue.  The community, in an effort to support those with food insecurity, developed a food bank that provides fresh produce from local gardens.  Sarah’s mother was uncomfortable when she told me that most of the foods at the food bank require a stove.  She longs for a food bank with cereal and peanut butter.  She also shared that on one trip to the food bank, she accepted a bag of leeks because she was too embarrassed to admit she could do nothing with them.  

Well-meaning people develop policies to help those in need in our country.  Unfortunately, the “childhood obesity” campaigns have proven that policy that focuses on weight instead of health do more harm than good. I’ve put “childhood obesity” in quotes because the term itself carries a stigma that can further alienate and affect the well-being of individuals and families. In recent years, successful programs to address food insecurity have been under attack as they are pulled into the arena to fight “childhood obesity.”  The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as Food Stamps, and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have been evaluated to examine ways in which they may help reduce kids’ weight. 

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An example of a policy to amend SNAP occurred in New York state. The Department of Mental Hygiene and Human Resources Administration tried to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase any beverages, with the exception of milk and 100% juice, with more than 10 calories per 8 ounces.  This would have eliminated most sodas, vegetable juices, iced teas, and convenience beverages like juice boxes.  Seems like a good idea?  It might also be a policy created to remind the poor that they can not make reasonable choices for their families.  New York was not alone in the push to reduce options for recipients of SNAP.  Proposals like these have come up in many states.

Another policy directed at the National School Lunch Program was to require more offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches. Again, this sounds good on the surface, but it ended up making the program cost prohibitive for some of the poorest school districts in the nation. The policy ultimately puts schools at risk for dropping out of the program. This is yet another example of how an effort to reduce “childhood obesity” can actually put children at greater risk for food insecurity. 

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If these policies don’t work to solve food insecurity and improve the health of families, then what can we do? A radical idea would be to increase options on SNAP rather than reducing them.  This is being done in some cities where SNAP can be used at local farmers' markets.  This allows the family with the means to prepare vegetables to buy them but does not limit options for families that can’t.  Since the more-veggies-at-school-lunch policy is not solving the problem of food insecurity (and perhaps making it worse in many communities), another non-restrictive idea is to extend the food lunch programs to include breakfast and summer lunch.  Many communities have moved in this direction.  

The answer to “childhood obesity” does not lie in punishing families through policies that restrict access to certain types of food. Some might argue that, like dieting (where 96% of people gain the weight back, often feeling demoralized in the process), restricting access to a wide variety of foods creates more deprivation and stigma.  These policies limit individuals’ and families’ freedom of choice, and sometimes limit access to food in general. This creates more psychological and actual scarcity. The solution to “childhood obesity” is to work instead toward child and family health. Let’s change the focus from weight to health and fight food insecurity with more options for those at risk.

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*Name changed to protect privacy. 

References:

Gundersen, C. (2015). Food Assistance Programs and Child Health. The Future of Children, 25(1), 91-109. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43267764

Ximena Ramos Salas. (2015). The ineffectiveness and unintended consequences of the public health war on obesity. Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue Canadienne De Santé Publique, 106(2), E79-E81. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/canajpublheal.106.2.0e79

Guest Blog Post by Joyce Nadeau, LCSW, School Social Worker