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James M.
Democrat MA 2

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  • The Paradox of Hunger and Obesity

    by Representative James P. McGovern

    Posted on 2013-03-04

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    McGOVERN. Mr. Speaker, in our efforts to end hunger now, it is important to look at all aspects of hunger. Today, I want to talk about hunger and obesity and to highlight the unfortunate paradox between these two conditions.

    How can an obese person also be food insecure? To put it bluntly, how can an overweight person be hungry? The question may be simple, but the answer is not. Unfortunately, this link is all too prevalent among millions of low- and middle-income people.

    The simple truth is that hunger exists because people do not have enough money to buy enough healthy food, but obesity is more complex. Just because someone has enough money to buy food doesn't mean they have the resources to buy nutritious food. Ultimately, this is a problem of poverty in America.

    The families who struggle with hunger not only struggle to put food on their tables, they struggle to make the food they can afford on a few dollars a day as nutritious as possible. For a variety of reasons, even well-to-do families are finding it more difficult today to prepare nutritious meals. A big part has to do with the amount of widely available, inexpensive, nonnutritious food--high-calorie, high-fat, low-nutrient food--and part of that has to do with the time constraints on families today.

    But it is even more difficult for low-income, food-insecure families because they generally don't have access to full-service grocery stores. The local stores they do have access to, for the most part, do not sell fresh produce, and the fresh produce they do sell is expensive. So in order to stretch their food dollar, these families buy high-calorie, low-nutrient food that is more affordable.

    Obesity, like hunger, is often a function of poverty, and low-income families are especially vulnerable to obesity because of the additional risk factors associated with poverty. When taken together, these risk factors make it easy to see how obesity and hunger are related.

    There are at least four general risk factors for obesity that are associated with poverty: First, low-income neighborhoods are underserved by full-service supermarkets. In inner cities, food is most readily available at small neighborhood convenience stores where fresh produce and lower-fat food items are most limited. In rural areas, full-service grocery stores are many miles away. This is commonly referred to as a food desert, something that can exist in both urban and rural areas; Second, when healthy food is available, it is oftentimes more expensive than less healthy options. Low-income families must stretch their budgets in ways that make it difficult to purchase higher priced, more nutritious food items. This means that these families are forced to buy cheaper, high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium food that lasts longer just so they can make their food budgets stretch through the month; Third, there are fewer opportunities for physical activity in neighborhoods and schools. Safe open space can be difficult to find in many of our neighborhoods where lower income families live, sometimes because of lack of parks and other times because of higher crime rates; Fourth, high levels of stress and limited access to health care can contribute to weight gain. Hunger is truly a health issue, and it is important to note that stress and lack of access to quality health care can trigger physiological responses that contribute to obesity.

    Mr. Speaker, I remind people that food is medicine. My grandmother used to say ``an apple a day keeps the doctor away.'' It used to annoy me, but she was right. We missed an opportunity during the Affordable Care Act to address the issues of hunger and nutrition. We must do so now.

    Adequate access to good, nutritious foods can help lower the instances of diabetes and heart disease. That will improve the quality of life for people, but it will also save us money from avoidable health care issues. Hunger costs us dearly, and the cost to fix and solve the problem is cheaper than the status quo.

    So to all my colleagues who believe that the only problem we face is the budget deficit, I urge you to join us in this effort to end hunger now. It is fiscally the right thing to do, and it is our moral obligation.

    Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin. Yes, we have excellent antihunger safety net programs like SNAP and the school meal programs that help reduce incidences of hunger in America; yes, the First Lady's Let's Move campaign is working to address obesity in America, primarily among children; but we must do more to address these two issues together. Because of all of these factors, it is clear that we simply cannot address hunger or obesity. We must address both of these issues at the same time if we are going to end hunger now. It is why I believe we need a White House conference on food and nutrition, a Presidential summit that brings all the stakeholders together, a forum where we can develop and agree on one strategy to reduce hunger and obesity together.

    [[Page H821]] In addition, I would plead with my colleagues to not cut our antihunger safety net programs like SNAP and WIC, programs which provide a minimum food benefit. To do so would only worsen the problem of hunger and obesity in America. We must end hunger now, but we cannot do so just by increasing access to high-calorie, low-nutrient food. It is a real challenge, but it's one that we are capable of meeting. We just need to muster the political will to make it happen. End hunger now.


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