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Obesity tracks food aid, high-cost living
MISSISSIPPI STATE – Food assistance programs are designed to keep children fed who otherwise would be hungry, but a recent Southern Rural Development Center study found they often contribute to obesity in cities with a high cost of living.
The study was conducted by Elizabeth Rigby of The George Washington University and Rachel Tolbert Kimbro of Rice University. It was commissioned by the SRDC, housed at Mississippi State University, and it is part of the Food Assistance and Nutrition Information Series.
At issue was the impact of federal food assistance programs on childhood obesity rates. Nationally, about one-third of U.S. children are overweight and 16 percent are obese. As of 2008, one half of all U.S. children will participate in food stamp programs, now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“The findings suggest that in cities where food is more expensive, federal food assistance programs (and in particular SNAP) may be contributing to early childhood obesity,” the study states. “In low-cost cities, [the programs] may be deterring it.”
There are a variety of food-security programs designed to help low-income families stretch food budgets. In addition to SNAP and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, older children of low-income families are fed meals or snacks through child-care centers and schools.
“Because these programs reach children at young ages and influence what they eat, they have strong potential to combat obesity,” the study states. “Yet in recent years, evidence has emerged that some of these programs may have counterproductive effects.”
Many studies have examined the different kinds of federal food assistance available and their relationship to obesity rates. This study focused on the impact the cost of living has on children eating with assistance from SNAP. These food assistance payments typically do not vary with the local cost of living.
“In cities with high cost of living, recipients may resort to lower-cost, less nutritional foods,” the study found. “This, in turn, may contribute to obesity.”
The study concluded that food assistance programs contribute to childhood obesity in families with the lowest incomes who live in cities with high food prices.
“In contrast, in cities with low food prices, food assistance programs help reduce obesity for the lowest-income families,” the study found.
Brent Fountain, nutrition specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said the healthiest foods, primarily fruits and vegetables, tend also to be the most expensive.
“Fruits and vegetables are not produced in the quantities that other foods are, and most are not subsidized, which would lower costs,” Fountain said. “The fruit and vegetable industry charges a premium for fresh supplies, as they are affected by weather and the season.”
Fountain suggested shoppers buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season and consider frozen or canned choices at other times. Frozen and canned items typically have similar nutritional value and cost less than fresh items. However, shoppers must examine the nutritional data provided on the product and choose those with lower salt and sugar contents.
“In general, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are very similar to their fresh counterparts and are a good value for the money,” Fountain said.
While processed foods appear cheaper on the surface, Fountain said an examination of labels show they typically offer a lot of calories but not a lot of nutrition.
“If a product is high calorie but does not have a lot of nutrients, that is a problem,” he said. “Look for high nutrition and low calories.”
Fountain also recommended shopping with a menu for upcoming meals, building around complex carbohydrates that provide lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Add a protein source to complement the primary elements of vegetables and fruit.