Mayor Booker, Here’s Some Help for Healthy Shopping

On Monday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker began a one-week food-stamp challenge that required him to live for the week on a food budget equal to that of a New Jersey resident of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The challenge stems from a Twitter exchange in which a follower argued with the mayor that nutrition is not the responsibility of the government. As a result, Mayor Booker challenged himself and the follower to live on a SNAP-equivalent budget for one week to document the experience, raise awareness of food insecurity issues and elevate food policy discussions.

Eating healthy is hard on any budget. We all know we need to do it, but so many factors impact our ability to eat well. Finances, stress, time, willpower and a host of other factors play a role in determining what we put in our mouths. But when you are on $30 per week budget, the challenge seems impossible. The average consumer has difficulty understanding what is healthy. Food labels are confusing. In fact, according to a recent study by the International Food Information Council, almost half of Americans think it is easier to do their own taxes than to figure out how to eat healthfully.

And many perceive that healthy eating is costly. A survey conducted for Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters in 2011 shows that even though 85% of respondents say that eating healthy dinners is important to their families, one-quarter of families skip healthy purchases because they feel they cannot afford them.

But healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Dr. Mehmet Oz recently argued in Time that we have many often-overlooked, affordable options in our supermarkets, such as frozen vegetables, canned salmon and tuna and peanut butter. Mayor Booker must have taken note. He bought several canned products and a few bags of frozen vegetables for the week.

But the mayor has already acknowledged that he made some mistakes. If he were to do it over again, he would have clipped coupons. But the challenge is that many of the coupons available are for unhealthy food. So what do you do – clip coupons for unhealthy food or pay full price for healthy options? There are better options. A new website called Everyday Healthy Values aggregates coupons for healthier product options. A collaboration between Coupons.com and Cigna, the health insurer, the site offers coupons for products that meet minimum nutritional guidelines aligned to federal standards for reducing fat, sodium and sugar levels.

We have become a culture of food snobs, focusing on labels such as organic and all-natural. But the reality is that our food supply provides healthy options for many budgets. If we can figure out how to purchase and cook healthier versions of the foods we love, we can make huge strides in the health and wellness of this nation. Everyday Healthy Values and Mayor Booker are both helping us all take that first step.

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Why is Fixing Access So Hard?

An article in The Atlantic earlier this month discussed the New York City Department of Health’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative to increase nutritional offerings in at-risk neighborhoods. The logic is that low income neighborhoods have less access to quality food and that contributes to high levels of obesity.

Studies around the country have shown that less affluent communities tend to have high levels of obese and overweight residents. And New York City is no exception. According to the data, 60 percent of adults in East Harlem and Central Harlem are either overweight or obese. And less than 10 percent of Harlem residents eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

This concept of low access to healthy food options in low socio-economic communities led to the term “food desert.” A food dessert is defined by the U.S. government as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” There are more than 6,500 food deserts in the continental U.S. (food desserts are not yet defined for Hawaii and Alaska) and 75 percent of them are in urban areas. Some studies have correlated low access to healthy food options to higher obesity rates.

So the solution should be simple. Let’s work with grocery store and supermarket chains to open more retail locations in these food deserts. Once residents of food deserts have healthier options, they will surely eat better. Right?

Again, the solution is not that easy. According to the New York Times two new studies are challenging the notion of lack of access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods.  The studies show that while poor, urban neighborhoods have a higher concentration of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, they also have more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-serve restaurants. They don’t lack access to healthy options. The study concludes there is no relationship between the type of food available in a neighborhood and obesity rates among its children and adolescents.

So what does it all mean? Like an economic model, we need to look at the supply and demand side of the equation. In this case, the Field of Dreams approach of “build it and they will come” isn’t the solution. Building fresh food stores only addresses the supply portion of the equation – and the recent studies are calling into question whether supply is even an issue. We need to look closely at the demand side.  If it were a matter of supply only, the New York bodegas wouldn’t be able to keep their small supply of fruits and vegetables in stock. Instead, they are throwing out half their stock. Why aren’t consumers in poor, urban neighborhoods buying produce when it is available? Is it too expensive? Is it difficult or time-consuming to prepare? Are the fruits and vegetables available not part of a community’s culinary culture? For example, communities whose heritage comes from warm weather climates (such as the Caribbean) may be less familiar with fruits and vegetables grown and consumed in more temperate climates (such as North America and Europe). What factors are impacting the demand side of the equation?

There are many variables impacting eating behaviors that we need to consider in the fight for healthier eating habits. Prescriptive supply-side solutions won’t fix the obesity crisis.  Shaming the food industry or overweight people won’t do it either.  The answer lies on the demand side of the equation. And that’s the hard part of the equation. If the demand is there, the supply will follow. The overweight and obesity issue in this country requires comprehensive, societal change, one that impacts body, mind, soul and environment. It’s pretty daunting to think about it that way, but then again, so is the problem.

Be Careful with Labels in the Fight against Child Obesity

A couple of months ago, Disney quietly launched a new attraction at Epcot’s Innoventions called “Habit Heroes.” The attraction was intended to be an interactive exhibit to combat childhood obesity and encourage healthy habits.

The opening was a soft launch to get feedback before formally launching in early March, and they received quite a bit of criticism. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) felt the attraction stigmatized being overweight because all the villains in the attraction were portly. It criticized the attraction for its negativity and even accused Disney of “taking the side of the bullies.” I read one account by a Canadian blogger who wrote, ”

“So thanks for being so helpful Disney – I mean if your kid’s not overweight or obese, here’s to Disney reinforcing society’s most hateful negative obesity stereotyping, and if they are overweight or obese – what kid doesn’t want to be made to feel like a personal failure while on a Disney family vacation?”

Disney has since closed the exhibit for re-tooling.

I have not seen the exhibit so I can’t speak to its appropriateness. I’m also not familiar with the NAAFA, so I looked at their website. The purpose of the organization is to protect the rights and improve the quality of life for fat people. “NAAFA works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through advocacy, public education, and support.” I’m not sure I can support an organization for fat acceptance, but they do make a valid point in their criticism of how the attraction can make overweight children feel.

As the nation has tried to tackle childhood obesity, it has created a stigma against being overweight. If you are fat, you are bad. And why not? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the medical cost of obesity in the U.S. totaled $147 billion in 2008.

The problem is that obesity is not a health issue we can fix with a simple solution. A few years ago, we targeted smokers as the health issue to fix. Health campaigns around the country encouraged smokers to stop cold turkey, and that action removed the negative label. That same standard doesn’t apply to people who are overweight. First of all, we can ask them to stop eating. Food is a necessity. Second, changing your diet does not automatically fix the problem. Weight loss takes time and is often impacted by other social and environmental factors. We eat for more than just sustenance. After all, we have all heard terms like  “comfort food” and “stress eating.” So to address obesity, we need to look at the social and environmental factors impacting weight gain — the “why” people eat.

A few days ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by Frank Bruni where he explored our country’s expanding waistline, the reasons behind it and the toll it takes. He sums up the point well with the following:

“If we’re going to wage a successful war against unhealthy weight gain and obesity, we need to understand all of that. We need to stop vilifying obese people, who aren’t likely to be helped by it.”

This is even more important when we talk about kids. When we target overweight kids, we risk labeling them during a critical period in their development. Studies have shown there is a developmental association between obesity and rates of self-esteem in children and adolescents. Overweight children are at greater risk of lower self-esteem. This can result in social isolation, bullying and other issues.

Bottom line, we have to tackle childhood obesity. It’s critical for the future health of our country. But we have to be careful about labeling overweight kids as bad or deficient in the process. Positive social support has to be part of the equation. So how do we do it?

Eating Healthy — if you can

We all know we need to eat healthy. Just turn on the TV or open a magazine. From the “Eat This, Not That” guy to the glut of health reporters, dietitians and celebrity chefs trying to help us all figure it out, we know healthy eating is important. After all, three-quarters of American adults are overweight or obese. So this should be easy, right?

Not necessarily. Access to food and hunger is a big issue in this country. More than 16 million children in America are at risk of hunger. That’s more than one in five children who are not sure where their next meal is coming from. Child hunger is not just a health issue. It’s a social and developmental issue. Children who are hungry are often more prone to illness, more like to ultimately be obese later in life and more likely to have highly levels of behavioral, emotional and academic problems. How can we expect to raise the next generation of confident, strong, successful Americans when as children, they are not getting their basic food needs during their developmental years?

The Food Network has partnered with Share Our Strength, an organization dedicated to eradicating childhood hunger. On April 14th, the Food Network aired a documentary about childhood hunger in America through the eyes of three families in Texas, Virginia and New York City. If you missed it, you can watch it online. It will air again on the Food Network on April 21st at 6:00 p.m. EDT/5:00 p.m. CDT and April 23rd at 10:00 a.m. EDT/9:00 a.m. CDT.

Eradicating childhood hunger is an investment in our future. Our children need to be strong of mind and body to compete in the global economy. So look at it as a future investment.

But let’s also look at it in more immediate terms. We tend think of food insecurity as an inner city problem or a rural issue. But food insecurity abounds in well-to-do, suburban communities. It can be someone in your child’s classroom. We know the health implications. Children who struggle with hunger are more likely experience headaches, stomachaches, colds, ear infections and fatigue. But the emotional and social impact is much deeper. As the documentary showed, children at risk of hunger feel shame and insecurity. According to Share Our Strength, children who regularly do not get enough nutritious food to eat can be more aggressive and anxious. Teens who regularly do not get enough to eat have difficulty getting along with other kids.

This is a community issue. Let’s look at it from the perspective of one child in one class. Have you ever wondered about the root cause of a child’s behavior? The disruptive child in your son’s class may not be a bad kid. He may be hungry and struggling to concentrate. He may be anxious, reflecting his parents’ anxiety about being unable to provide nutritious food at home. Imagine the positive impact — if this one child could become food secure, he/she could thrive in school, improve social ties and the entire class can benefit. Now replace the word “classroom” for “community” and the possibilities grow exponentially.

Health is a group effort that directly impacts the happiness and productivity of a community. It’s a daunting challenge to tackle. But I’m going to start by picking up some extra food at the supermarket today for my church’s food pantry.