The Times Leader of Pennsylvania ran an interesting article — citing an unnamed research study — arguing poor children in the urban core are more likely than their richer peers to grow up obese, yet malnourished. 

FORT WORTH, Texas — A study finds that obese children from poor families often don’t eat enough.

Researchers have long blamed childhood obesity and diabetes, especially in poor neighborhoods, on too much food and too little exercise.

But new findings from a San Antonio study point to another explanation: children living in poverty are obese in part because they don’t eat enough to meet the daily nutritional requirements needed for cell function and metabolism.

A 9-year-old should consume 1,400 to 2,200 calories daily to sustain growth, said Dr. Roberto Trevino, director of the nonprofit Social and Health Research Center. But in the study of 1,400 inner-city children, 44 percent were consuming less than 1,400 calories, and 33 percent were obese.

“They were not overeating,” Trevino said. “This study shows these kids were not eating enough, and when they did eat it was all the wrong things.”

Missing from the children’s diets were four key nutrients: calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. All play important roles, but magnesium is involved in more than 300 enzymatic reactions in the body that help to spur metabolism and cell function.

Even though we don’t have the full results of the study to analyze, we can still infer several key elements missing in the Times Leader’s analysis.

1.  The poor children were likely fed using government welfare Food Stamps.  There has long be a call for a more regulated Food Stamps program that would demand only healthy foods were eligible for purchase.  Right now, parents can buy loads of sugary junk food with Food Stamps without repercussion or governmental oversight.

2.  Because the poor children are eating the wrong foods — and they’re getting fatter while being malnourished — it is obvious the parents purchasing the food have no idea how to independently construct a healthy meal.  Why is the government giving parents the means to poison their children with mass-marketed food that is slowly killing the kids and giving them Type II Diabetes?

3.  The poor children need direct government intervention to save their lives because their parents are not feeding them the right foods.

Here are my suggestions to remedy the problem:

1.  Revoke the Food Stamps program.  Free choice and free will are not winning the future welfare days of poor children in the urban core.

2.  Cut the poor decision-making skills of the parents out of the loop of the welfare of their children and replace poorly exercised healthy eating skills with mandatory classes for kids and their parents that teaches the why and the how of good eating habits.

3.  Create a National Home Food Service that will replace Food Stamps by delivering a month’s worth of meals at a time to Welfare families.  Each meal is pre-planned and approved by the government just like school lunches:  No government cheese included.  If you cannot provide for your children, the price you pay is the loss of selection in food choices and in determining what is and is not appropriate to place in your mouth and in your child’s mouth.

What do you think?

How would you solve the problem of poor children growing up in the urban core overweight and malnourished? 

29 Comments

  1. David,
    I love your three steps, particularly the third one. Would there be a system in place for checking for allergies – eg peanut allergies, et al? The poor dietary decisions being made come back to hurt us in higher medical costs overall so enforcing a nutritious diet would be excellent.

  2. Hi David!
    I remember reading somewhere that around the world, fatty food is generally cheaper (most of it available as fast food) and it takes less of it (because it’s greasy) for one to feel full and so it can seem like the sensible and economical thing to do.
    And also by being undernourished and missing key nutrients from the daily diet, that keep our metabolism rates healthy, the body tends to go into famine mode, which means that it’ll store away almost all the energy it can spare as fat deposits.
    I agree that families – especially those with children – who are fed by welfare food stamps should be provided with better options.

  3. That’s true, Dananjay, higher fat content food gives the feeling of being fuller, faster.
    We have a terrible history in the USA of giving poor people food that is on its way to expiration or it is military surplus. If you listen to any of the Black comics that grew up in the 70’s, I guarantee you they’ll have a riff somewhere in their files about being given “government cheese” that no one else wanted but that their families were expected to make feed an entire family.
    How are poor children fed in India? Does the government intercede or are private entities expected to fill the gap?

  4. David,
    Have you ever witnessed a poor food stamp purchase in person?
    I have, and it is a scary experience indeed! Bag of chips after bag of chips with ice cream and nary a vegetable in sight.

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of “government cheese”, David. It’s true though that healthier food tends to gravitate towards the higher-income parts of society leaving the poor with little choice.
    In India, in the rural areas the poor actually have a better deal. Healthy food, in the form of stapes like rice and wheat and leafy greens, vegetables and meat is available readily, but of course only in years of good harvest and healthy economic climate.
    There are also programmes that are undertaken by the government that aim to ensure supplies of essentials like food and cooking oil and fuel through Fair Price Shops for those who are living below the poverty line. In a few states there are Midday Meals schemes in government schools that also additionally incentivize parents who may otherwise be reluctant to send their children to schools.

  6. Yes, I see those purchases all the time, Gordon, and it is dismaying. More often than not lots of meat and sugar and fatty stuff is purchased. I don’t see a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables heading over the scanner. I don’t know why ice cream is allowed under Food Stamps. What nutritional value does it have?

  7. None whatsoever.
    I wonder if they would make the “part of this balanced breakfast” argument that sugary cereals make – when in reality most people load up on the cereal and have none of the items to balance it! What to do?

  8. I think India does it better, Dananjay! There appears to be a caring and an effort to provide the right kinds of food in the proper quantities.
    In the USA it is truly “hand out and forget” — there is little, if any, governmental oversight after eligibility requirements have been met. A lot of taxpayer money is being wasted on bad food that is only making kids sicker.

  9. That does seem to be the case, David.
    Instead of giving food stamps that they can exchange for whatever food they care to buy, people are given essential foods at subsidized rates.
    Of course, this system too has its flaws. There have been many incidents of food of substandard quality being distributed due to a lack to adequate monitoring, there are cases when the kerosene (that is used in cooking stoves) being sold in the open market by those who run the outlets.

  10. We had a similar problem, Dananjay, when Food Stamps were actual “stamps” and you had them in a checkbook thing and they you tore them out to pay for food in 20, 10, and 5 dollar denominations. There was a big black market in reselling Food Stamps because once you had them, you weren’t monitored or tracked. So you’d apply for benefits, get the stamps, resell them at 50% of face value and buy drugs and booze.
    So, the government got smart! Now they hand out debit cards tied to individuals. Every couple of weeks or so your card gets re-loaded. If you venture too far outside your home habits, you get flagged for investigation of fraud.
    Truly hungry people will eat whatever is given to them, so if we can feed the truly hungry with really good food — we all win because the food isn’t being wasted, people are healthier and healthy people lift society instead of weighing it down with illness.

  11. Exactly, David!
    I was thinking why would you buy chips and ice-cream and all that stuff with your welfare stamps? Surely one gets sick on it after a while. Why would one persist with that kind of diet? Is it because eating chips and ice-cream has temporary benefits that makes one feel good, better than a diet of truly nutritional food? Is it a sense of hopelessness that drives one to such measures?
    Could it be because they are surrounded by messages that link those foods with a better/happier/carefree life?

  12. Hi David,
    I too, was extremely surprised seeing the small kids buying mostly junk foods in the market place. I couldn’t understand why their parents allowed them to buy it in the first place.
    I remember, we were not supposed to have any junk food/ snacks/ chocolates in abundance till a certain point. My school was tremendously vigilant and strict about these, even when we used to go home for a vacation we had to follow it at home.
    I think along with your third step an awareness program on diet and nuitrition is also important.

  13. Hi Dananjay —
    I think it’s a dire matter of education: They don’t know any better. So, they feed their kids what they were fed: Corner store convenience food.
    As well, young mothers on welfare are also immature and to have a free shot at almost anything in the store is an invitation to buy what you crave and not what your body needs.

  14. Firstly, I just have to say this… the children in these families are not ‘poor children’ they are children that belong to poor families. You might ask what is the difference? Well, there is a big different – just like you wouldn’t refer to a child with disabilities as a ‘disabled child’. You always put the child first, not whatever condition they have, whether it be poverty or anything else. so now that I have said that….
    I will say this: While I agree that parents need to do more to make sure that their kids are eating healthy foods, I also believe there is enough of a stigma attached to food stamps already. People are embarrassed to use them, and generally only are on them when it is absolutely necessary for their survival. So who are to tell them what they should or should not eat? As for the children, people have a right to feed their kids what they want up until the point that it is endangering the child’s life. A child having a few snacks isn’t going to do that – that is only going to happen if the child is say 10 years old and 190 pounds (I saw that on Dr. Phil today).
    One final note: Remember that the majority of people on Food Stamps stay on them for two years or less – just enough time to get themselves situated where they could afford food for themselves.

  15. I can see this is a well intentioned post, but I am more than a little disturbed by your paternalistic attitude toward those below the poverty line. I would echo Sara’s sentiments that food stamps are already highly stigmatized; the media may love to portray the Welfare Mother as slyly working the system, the vast majority of the children and families I have worked with as an urban educator have been highly adverse to handouts. Especially the sort of condescending “charity” that would specifically determine what a family eats for a month.
    I am not arguing that we should not invest considerable time and energy into improving the eating habits of all our children. I’ve seen the terrible choices that are picked up at the corner store- the 3 bags of “rap snacks” for breakfast, the 32 ounce “blue” flavored sodas, the off brand cheese puffs and gummy bears. But I would challenge you to go into a corner store in an urban neighborhood and find a healthy lunch you could pick up for a dollar or two, and while your in the neighborhood you to check out the local school lunch. Most don’t provide anything close to balanced nutrition and are generally almost inedible.
    Fighting national obesity and encouraging healthy food choices is a laudable goal. Instead of dictating family choices, however, I would offer the following suggestions:
    1. Improve and expand the school lunch program. Schools serving large free and reduced lunch populations should be providing both breakfast and lunch, the quality of which should be greatly improved. My current school is in the second year of a mostly organic outside provider of lunches. It isn’t perfect (10 year olds aren’t generally fond of brown rice or tofu), it is a tremendous improvement on ANYTHING I’ve seen served at a school in years. If we can get kids eating healthy food for at least two meals a day it is far likelier they will both continue good nutrition habits later and get more of the nutrition they need today.
    2. Improve quality and selection of groceries available in poor neighborhoods. People can’t buy what they can’t get to. They also can’t buy what they can’t afford.
    3. Provide support, resources and education to struggling communities.
    I’ve talked to more than one parent with 2 or more jobs and 3 or more kids. Parents want to do the right thing for their children, but they are going to put paying the rent and easing a growling stomach before investing hours into cooking well balanced meals. Especially when their nutritional education was limited to a couple of sessions a year of turning grape juice into soda with seltzer water and looking at glass test tubes filled with sugar. Offering training to improve job opportunities and on site day cares at work, boosting civic organizations, and providing free classes on parenting and nutrition would go a great distance in improving quality of life for everyone.

  16. Good Morning,
    I was browsing through your comments on the food stamp issue, and what I am hearing is the same judgmental attitude that I hear far too often. I am a 44 year old mother of one 11 year old child and – YES, you guessed it – I am on Food stamps! But guess what? I am not lazy, I am not uneducated. I worked hard my entire life, but as I did not go to collage, or to the air force as I had intended (I made 100% on the exam) – I got hit by drunk drivers instead, before I could do so. After many years of surgeries, and not enough money to pay for them – I went back to work as soon as I was able. I worked for many years at low skill level and low paying jobs – but I always made enough to pay my bills, my rent, etc.. However, as the injuries took their toll on me over the years, I was down to working only a couple hours a day, a couple days a week – then four years ago, after fighting sever and dibiliating headaches from where my face and skull were crushed, more surgeries on my back and yet another surgery on my right arm – the one that had all the nerves and tendons severed in half – I finally had to quit working. By this time, my son was six, i had no savings left, and I had to wait a year and a half before getting disability (which expects me to survive on 577.00 a month). Finally, though it was the last thing I ever wanted to do – I applied for food stamps. I recieve 215.00 a month. I try as hard as possible to buy myself and my son healthy foods. Organic milk (as I cannot have anything with antibiodics in it _ which is almost all dairy, and poultry and red meat)., Fruits, and vggies, etc.. But have seen the prices of fresh fruits and veg., whole grained breads, organic ANYTHING, etc…? The healthier we eat – the faster I run out of money. And by mid month, the food stamp money is gone. Occassionally, I will buy a sugary ceral, or a box of cookies – and I am usually highly embarrassed when I do, because the cashiers and other people in line give you those judgemental looks, like, how dare i waste the goverments money on something that actually tastes good! Generally I go to a local grocery store, during mid-week, because I know several of the cashiers there, and they know my circumstances, and do not see fit to judge me. It is because of people and attitudes like yours that a lot of parents, who are hard working, EDUCATED, people, but whose circumstances has made it impossible for them to feed their children, Do Not get the help they need, and so their kids go hungry. Shame on you. Do not place yourself as others keepers, or in judgment of their lives until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

  17. places like whole foods market take food stamps. so it’s just lame to use being on food stamps not to get healthier food. i got veggie burgers, tofu, and rice or soy milks when i was using them along with things like peanut butter, veggies, 100% fruit juices, and whole grain breads. i got some treats, too, but they weren’t most of what i spent my budget on. there are tons of cheap but healthy foods one can make.

  18. I think it’s great that places like Whole Foods take food stamps, but it seems like you have overlooked the fact that they mostly build their stores in high-income areas. I live in New York City, and I can tell you from experience it is nearly impossible to find organic markets in boroughs outside of Manhattan, or areas with mid/lower income levels. You can’t walk a block in Manhattan without passing a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or some sort of equivalent “yuppie” organic joint, but dare you venture into the Bronx (where I am from) an organic market is nowhere in sight. I cannot fathom it being convenient for a working parent to travel 40 min. outside of their way to purchase goods at an organic store, such as Whole Foods. It seems to me that the heads of such corporations don’t really seem to care about the poor, as they do not build in areas where nutritional products are truly needed. I am 22 years old and come from a family of five, with two hard working lower-middle class parents. We never had to go on food stamps, but I can tell you, it was a struggle. Sometimes it was just not possible to buy sugar free cereals, and the notion of everything having to be “organic” is a recent phenomena. Balance is key when trying to achieve a healthy lifestyle. We need to educate parents before blaming them, and we need to extend compassion and understanding as we do no know the struggles of our neighbors.

  19. You cannot lump all welfare recipients together as being stupid and lazy. I am well aware of how to shop and how to prepare nutritious and delicious meals. We do not eat meat or any processed foods. I make my own cheeses and breads. And yes, I do shop at Trader Joes for some items. I find the best deals possible. I am able to make my funds last me to the end of the month. We are not fat or overweight. We were a middle class family that was employed by one of these car plants for 17 years.We were not fired but forced out. We only use this program because of our son. Otherwise we would not. I do not need cooking classes or other government programs telling me what foods to buy. We need our job so that we can earn money and get off of this program.

  20. Your idea to basically put all food stamp recipients on Nutrisystem-government-style is terrible. First of all, have you ever seen the government put together a decent meal program that takes different people’s needs into consideration? From school lunch to prison meals to army rations, the government doesn’t have a great reputation for actually respecting nutrition. You say these meals would be “like school lunches.” I went to public school in four different states, and I NEVER saw nutritious meals being served. Lots of pizza, french fries, cheeseburgers without lettuce or tomato, and the daily “congealed jello.” Did you know that the govt. counted ketsup as a vegetable for the purposes of school lunches? That corn and potatoes are likely the only “veggies” a kid in school will ever eat? (Corn is not a veggie, it is a grain.) Is this monthly drop-off ever going to include SALADS or anything else fresh? Aren’t you proposing raising an entire generation of people who have never even seen a lettuce leaf? (The answers to those last two questions are No, and Yes, simply due to logistics.)
    Second, do you assume that everyone on food stamps will be on them for the rest of their lives? What about people who actually get through school, get a job, and can get off of welfare? If they have had their food delivered to them in this paternalistic manner their entire lives, how will THEY understand how to shop for themselves, make smart choices, plan meals, avoid impulse purchases? Meal planning, ingredient acquisition, and cooking are important life skills that would be TOTALLY LOST in your plan.
    Instead of this plan, I propose a plan similar to the WIC program. WIC only provides a select few “healthy” foods for pregnant/nursing women and young children who meet income guidelines. Now, the WIC program is another example of how the government doesn’t understand nutrition, because in addition to the healthy things they provide (milk, cheese, peanut butter, eggs, tuna, carrots, beans) they also load you up with tons of fruit juice and breakfast cereals. But at least the concept is there: only allow whole foods (or healthy almost-whole foods) to be purchased with “food stamps.” The foods are on an approved list. The list would include all whole produce, meat/poultry/fish, dairy, eggs, canned fish, and frozen produce. This way:
    1. People can tailor the foods they receive to meet their tastes, tolerances, allergies, and ability to prepare them.
    2. People get used to shopping the outside aisles of the grocery store, where most of the whole food is found, and by-passing the aisles of junk in the middle.
    3. People learn to use whole ingredients to plan and assemble meals.