Make food programs for needy healthier

December 20, 2006|By Hannah Lupien

There is something to be said for fast food: It is quick, convenient and - especially - cheap. We all know that it's bad for us, but when a bacon double-cheeseburger costs less than a head of lettuce, it might be hard to refuse.

Fruits and vegetables are one of the keys to good health. Barbara Rolls invented the sensible Volumetrics diet, which encourages people to eat large quantities of low-energy-dense foods rather than small portions of energy-dense foods. This plan makes sense: You feel full, lose weight and end up eating a lot more fresh produce.

Unfortunately, Volumetrics and similar health-food diets miss an important element: the economic factor. For somebody on a tight budget, it is not feasible to buy lots of expensive vegetables to replace one jar of peanut butter. A British study titled "Poor Families `Priced Out of a Healthy Diet'" found a 51 percent price gap between shopping carts full of nutritious versus unhealthful foods. If people can barely afford the least-expensive foods, these more expensive, healthful foods are clearly out of reach.

For the past seven years, I have worked at a food pantry in Baltimore. Many of the clients were overweight, and many have diabetes. One day, a woman mentioned that she was trying to lose weight because she was afraid of getting diabetes. Her main concern was that she would not be able to afford health care and medicines.

I tried to help this client find some low-fat, low-sugar options. As I scanned the shelves, all I saw was food high in salt, fat, preservatives and sugar. Ramen noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese were the pantry's most plentiful items, and because of a lack of refrigeration facilities, we were never able to provide fresh fruits or vegetables. Many other women at the pantry had similar issues with weight management, and they were not nearly as concerned with the aesthetic consequences of obesity as with the economic ones.

The affluent spend billions of dollars annually on diet programs and products; the poor do not have these tools at their disposal. But there are things the government and others can do. If food pantries and shelters were required to provide more nutritious food and given government support to do so, this could help stem the obesity epidemic. The food stamp and WIC programs could be greatly expanded to provide better food to more people. Most important, if the government would stop subsidizing corn and soybeans and start subsidizing fruits and vegetables, we could begin to make real progress.

The reasons to address this problem go beyond altruism. Low-income people rack up more than $200 billion a year in medical expenses that they cannot pay for, creating a huge burden on society. For every $1 the government spends on preventive measures, the nation saves $10.64 in later medical expenses and lost productivity. The resulting savings could offset the costs of providing higher-quality food and nutrition education to the needy.

During the holidays, we tend to indulge in tasty but guilt-inducing comfort foods. On New Year's Day, many of us will vow to change our dietary ways. Here's a resolution that would do all of us good: Let's establish policies that will give every American a better chance at having a happy, healthy new year.

Hannah Lupien, a freshman at Yale University and graduate of the Friends School, has lived in Baltimore for the last nine years. Her e-mail is hannah.lupien@yale.edu.

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