Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Bronx Paradox and other new food policy research

Many articles and issues about food security popping up lately: here's a quick look a few.

The Obesity-Hunger Paradox, NYT 3.12.10
A fascinating article in the Times about the co-mordibity of hunger and obesity, dubbed here "the Bronx Paradox." It's an issue I've long suspected but never saw the data put side-by-side. Some of the highest rates of food hardship are in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn; right where there are high percentages of food-related illness. This is another example about how socioeconomic problems are often a complex web with very few easy prescriptions. As quoted in the article,
“If you look at rates of obesity, diabetes, poor access to grocery stores, poverty rates, unemployment and hunger measures, the Bronx lights up on all of those,” said Triada Stampas of the Food Bank for New York City. “They’re all very much interconnected.”
Multi-pronged solutions of income support, nutritional support and education, improved access to better food choices in schools, in local stores and in neighborhood supermarkets, and improved spaces for recreation are all needed to combat the twin problems of hunger and obesity.

Rise in Soda Price Linked to Better Health, NYT 3.15.10

New research provides evidence that a proposed soda tax could reduce soda consumption and help young people make healthier choices. In nearly a one-to-one ratio, a 10% increase in price led to a 7% decrease in soda consumption, and less calories consumed overall. Full study is in the March 8 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Michelle Obama's Let's Move Campaign wants ideas:
A new White House directive has created the interagency Childhood Obesity Task Force which is developing an action plan for how federal, state, and local governments, along with the private and nonprofit sectors, can come together to fight childhood obesity. In a call for ideas, you can submit suggestions here. The form is a little daunting, but you can use the comments button to write in your suggestions. They say whatever ideas you have are welcome, and they want ideas from parents and educators as well as from professionals. The deadline for submitting comments is March 26, 2010.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Walmart effect

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Just a link to a very interesting article. There are so many issues to balance in nationwide food debates. There is a knee-jerk reaction against big corporate entities, especially ones with terrible workplace practices, like Walmart, but getting the huge food system to adapt and change is important too. Costco, the legend of huge sizes and relatively upscale bargains, is known for its produce and fresh food, some of it organic. The will of these giants, with their eye on the bottom line, may be what is needed to get organic or locally farmed food into the nationwide distribution system.

At the end of the day, access to fresh food at affordable prices is critically important. Strange, but true, that a mega-store may be the one that can make local, organic, fresh food the norm versus a luxury.

The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Walmart, Not Whole Foods, save the small farm and make America healthy? Croby Kummer, The Atlantic, March 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The "One Cookie" Debate

The NYT Well blog this week features an interesting article debating whether cutting one cookie or a can of soda a day from your diet is enough to make any significant impact on weight loss. Or taken writ large that question could be posed: Can small changes in behavior be enough to make a dent in the obesity epidemic in America? The 385 + comments that trail from the blog post, while not in unison, pose an important challenge to the author: if we don't have the "small changes" to make, what do we have? Some people report how several small changes, taken together, start to amount to broad changes toward healthier lifestyles. Others seem to suggest that a commitment to a better diet or improved activity has to start somewhere. Only a few seemed willing to throw up their hands and give up.

Another issue is that we are actually not talking about ONE cookie; we are talking about many cookies and extra snacks a day. (See Parker-Pope's blog the every next day: Generation Snack.) And sometimes it's the GIANT cookies or muffins or bagels you find at the local bakery, which are many times the calories of a lowly normal cookie. The habits of having a cookie a day or a soda a day are not learned overnight, and may take some doing to unlearn. Again, acknowledging the problem and starting "somewhere," is an important step.

Sometimes dramatic change in lifestyle or diet is needed. Often a surprising lab result from a doctor's visit or a loved one's illness can prompt one to review diet and activity levels. But what's the best way to make life-long behavior changes? Single drastic changes, such as adopting "the all fruit diet," "the all carb diet," or whatever fad diet is in the spotlight, are doomed to be short-lived. On the other hand, focusing on the "small stuff" can actually mean making mindful changes in eating or exercising habits. This represents a constant, on-going process of decision-making that can result in more profound changes. It is not an overnight fix, mandated and scripted by someone else. It is taking responsibility for ones' self and making manageble changes that will improve your health, both now and long term.

In Obesity Epidemic, What's One Cookie? Tara Parker-Pope, Well Blog, NYT, 3.1.10
U.S. Children: Generation Snack, Tara Parker-Pope, Well Blog, NYT, 3.2.10

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Food Stamps and Healthy Choices

A profile of the Food Stamp/EBT program in the New York Times last weekend had a number of surprising statistics, foremost that an astonishing 1.5 million New York City residents received benefits. Another surprise, to me, came in the breakdown of most popular items purchased. The "most popular" item: red meat. Nationwide, inexpensive red meats (7.8 percent of all transactions) and milk and yogurt (7.6 percent, combined). That's just as a percentage of actual transactions, not dollar value. Since meat tends to be more expensive that any other food purchase, the percentage of actual costs associated with meat purchases must be even higher. Also, high on the list were "more expensive" red meats at 6.7 percent and "bacon, sausage and luncheon meats" at 5.9 percent. Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture? Red meat is not the best nutritional bang for your buck and is not the healthiest choice, especially for a demographic group that may be having health issues, in addition to tough economic straits.

While I don't support strict shopping restrictions for food stamp recipients, there's an argument that better education is needed to promote better shopping habits and menu planning. By inadvertently supporting a steady diet of red meat, the food stamp program might be contributing to larger problems of obesity and health concerns related to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I'm certainly an occasional red meat eater, and I believe in moderation rather than strict dietary rules. But economical and healthy meals can be created without a over-dependence on red meat. Chicken (just 5.3 percent of EBT purchases), fish, beans, grains and vegetables can all be the center of healthy and satisfying meals.

I'm interested to learn what nutritional advice or other educational supports are provided to people who depend on the food assistance program. Can better information lead to better buying choices now, and improved health down the road?

Buying Milk and Meat, With Plastic Alan Feuer, NYT, 2.26.10
Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance, Jason DeParle, NYT 2.10.10
A History of Food Stamps, Use and Policy, An interactive timeline. NYT, 2.11.10
Hungry in America, NYT 2.09.10