Advocating Food Choice for Hungry Americans

Since it is National Nutrition Month, I have an informal survey for you: what do you think of as nutritious?  My guess is that you’re probably thinking of vegetables, whole grains, or lean chicken. I bet dollars to donuts that nobody thought, “a meal.”  For the nearly 49 million Americans who struggle with hunger, simply attaining an adequate diet to sustain themselves and their families is enough of a worry.

I mention this because one of the key messages of National Nutrition Month is “Enjoy your food, but eat less.” In light of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which has forced more and more people to struggle with food insecurity, “eat less” seems to me to be a bit of an unnecessarily punitive message.

Believe me, I get it.  Obesity has reached epidemic levels and the medical costs related to obesity and other diet related diseases are spiraling out of control.  Yet, hunger exists in people and communities that also struggle with obesity.

Yes, people can be hungry and obese.  It’s the paradoxical nature of food insecurity in the first world and while the connections and interactions between hunger and obesity are complex, research suggests that they represent two sides of the same malnutrition coin.

So, when nutrition advocates attempt to address this very complex problem, you get well-meaning, but somewhat awkward, proposals, like telling people who may be hungry to “eat less.” Or, when politicians try to address the problem, you get legislative efforts like the recent one in Florida that would limit what people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamps program) can buy with their food benefits. The assumption is that if we legislate the way that low-income families can spend their benefits, then they will automatically buy more nutritious food.

Legislative proposals like this wrongly cast the obesity epidemic on the backs of people who are poor.  Since rates of obesity are rising across all social classes, singling out SNAP beneficiaries with restrictions creates unnecessary stigma and represents a step backward toward that age-old belief that people who are low-income are somehow fundamentally different from everybody else, and not that they are simply down on their luck for any number of valid reasons (for a great series on what it is like to be on the SNAP program, I strongly suggest visiting the blog, Creating Motherhood).

Furthermore, from a public health perspective, we should be concerned about what low-income families buy with their SNAP benefits as much as we should be concerned about what anybody buys with their own money. By trying to legislate what low-income families can buy is just an attempt to address obesity by exerting some control over an already vulnerable population.

Simply telling people to eat less or making people buy certain types of food over others are reductive solutions to a very complex problem.  Rather than restricting the amount and/or the types of food that people should buy and eat, we should be ensuring that everybody has the resources to access an adequate, nutritious diet and that the education supports are in place to help everybody make healthier choices and have the tools, skills, and time to make them happen.  Like cooking skills, for example.  Speaking of which, have you tried Gabriele’s White Bean and Rosemary Crostini? Healthy, cheap, fast, and delicious.

Oftentimes, the healthier choice is the more difficult one.  We should work together to make the healthier choice the easier one, not make people who are already struggling to feed their family feel bad about making very difficult choices.

Author: David Lee is a SNAP Policy Advocate for Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity.