Part of the Solution: Poverty and Real Food

An article found in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, written by Adam Drewnowski and S.E. Specter and entitled “Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs,” reports the following:
  • There is an inverse relation between energy density (MJ/kg) and energy cost ($/MJ), such that energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer.

  • Poverty and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets.

  • The highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates.
Upon considering the following statements made by D.J. Hoffman, taken directly from his Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations article, “Obesity in developing countries: causes and implications,” it can be concluded that obesity only perpetuates the cycle of economic oppression by making regular participation in the workforce a challenge:
  • An increased fat mass has been reported to inhibit spontaneous movement, result in poor health that reduces overall activity and inhibit various movements, as several studies have reported a strong relationship between body mass index, decreased physical functioning and a reduction in overall productivity.

  • An obese person reportedly experiences a 50 percent increase in lost productivity and visits a doctor 88 percent more than a healthy person during a six-year period in the United States (Wolf and Colditz, 1994).

  • The more sick a person is the greater his or her degree of absence from the workplace; chronic diseases related to obesity increase absenteeism.

Hoffman’s findings could apply just as easily to obese American residents studied in Drewnowski and Specter’s report. And too many health-related work absences (beyond the allotted paid sick leave, if any), result not only in loss of income but often loss of employment. Both consequences put a major strain on the ability to buy nourishing groceries and force one to purchase the aforementioned low cost, energy dense foods that contribute to obesity - if able to even purchase them at all – thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and obesity.

So here’s the deal:

When my husband and I moved our family back to the States, we ate the typical American diet. Attempting to nourish my family on a budget equal to my grocery allowance in Germany (i.e. low), I purchased low cost, energy dense foods. While we were able to procure fresh produce and the like in Germany on our low budget, the high cost of those items here in the States surprised me. Unaware of any potentially negative consequences to our health, I frugally resorted to feeding my family pre-packaged foods laden with bad fats, sugars, and taste enhancers. Yum.
But the money I saved on groceries was spent at the hospital, for example, when my husband’s gall bladder was finally removed due to symptoms that a fresh food diet would come to completely erase. Due to yet another MSG-sugar-caffeine induced, sleepless night, the saved grocery money was also spent on fast food dinners as I was too overwhelmed by life to cook, exhausted and lethargic. In the long run, I really didn’t save us all that much.

A minor breakdown following something like the fourth week (or was that month?) of what I just decided to call “open-eye” left me desperate for anything that would help me regain control of my life. The valuable help of health professionals guided me down a path towards a Real Food diet. This meant eating a diet consisting of whole, minimally processed foods with a focus on vegetables while eliminating sugars and other refined carbohydrates, plus hydrogenated oils and MSG. As my diet gradually shifted from processed to fresh foods, my health – our health - shifted from uncontrollable to manageable. And affordable.

As I began to reap the benefits of a Real Food diet - health, stamina, and energy - I noticed the types of food placed in the “Bag Hunger” bin at church and began to think. Generously and lovingly bagging hunger with sugary breakfast pastries or tiger-endorsed refined cereal certainly helps fill empty stomachs in the short term – definitely a worthy cause. But what are the long term consequences of feeding energy dense foods to those who have no other option but to rely on such donations? And are we just perpetuating the cycle? My thick middle (I forgot to mention that earlier), sleepless nights, and drowsy days, not to mention Bjoern’s surgeries, came to mind and my logic grew to uncannily resemble the researched statements above.

So this is where you and I come in.

I now believe that one possible strategy in eradicating poverty could come from nourishing our neighbors in need of grocery or meal assistance with Real Food. A Real Food diet (coupled ideally with education on making healthy food choices at the grocery store, cooking classes, and so many other social and systemic changes way beyond the scope of this article) would bestow the gift of health and strength by preventing obesity, thus supporting the ability to maintain a steady means of income and putting the brakes on at least this particular facet of the all too complex poverty cycle. This could happen by:
  • Paying close attention to the ingredients of the groceries we donate to our local food pantries. Looking for sugarless canned fruits and vegetables, tomato sauces, or oatmeal to donate is just one idea.

  • Starting a community garden, as my friend from church and fellow Burnside contributor Sara Sterley did. Right in our church’s backyard, she and others planted vegetables that, once harvested, were brought to a food pantry for distribution.

  • Donating surplus produce to shelters and pantries. Farm Fresh Delivery, a company that delivers my family a bin of vegetables every week, donates its surplus to a local organization for meal preparation.

  • Donating seeds and gardening supplies, together with supporting gardening education, as the least expensive food of all is home grown.
Jesus came to establish a New Kingdom that would turn the world’s systems upside down. As the hands and feet of that New Kingdom, maybe it is time for us go against the (refined?) grain of the American diet and love our neighbors with something other than empty calories. Designated as believers to be a part of His solution for poverty, perhaps we can and should serve something whole and full of healthy life.

    This column is intended be a place where we can come together and share our knowledge - our facts and our experiences - to empower and encourage one another into action. Let’s learn together how we can be a part of the solution in dismantling our world’s unjust systems of oppression. So, if you’ve got something we ought to know, send your facts and story, in 800 words or less, to this address.

1 comment:

  1. The inspiration:

    “Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.” Pierre Androuet.

    The challenge:

    GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

    Voila: www.tastingtoeternity.com.

    This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

    A unique and amusing Christmas present for all food lovers