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What does starvation look like?

During the Bush Administration’s push to enter Afghanistan, our hearts were twisted as we heard stories of women being burned alive by Taliban men in a rush to prove their power. Our eyes poured over images of women with bruises and cuts incurred by disobeying the law of the land. It felt, at least for me, that the hijab became the symbol of the outrage of the Taliban rule – how dare these men mistreat these women? Don’t they know better? Can’t we help them?

 

As so often happens in our world, we see stories like this that tug on our heartstrings in all the right places. From the pictures of little brown kids with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes you lazily encounter while sifting through piles of magazines you find on side tables in the doctor’s waiting room to stories of those women in Juarez that go missing as you cozily listen to the nightly news, we are suckers for issues abroad. You know that feeling – of guilt. And I don’t blame you – it is indeed terrible and sad.

 

I’m not sure if we Americans feel completely blameworthy about our successes as a nation, but we sure do love to watch others’ misery and speculate on how to help. As someone who identifies with this (possibly) altruistic behavior, I do also feel acutely aware of issues we address abroad rather than domestically, especially in regards to our nutrition.

 

Because: there are people being mistreated here in America. There are people who are starving. We have people with bloated bellies. And we have flies.

 

Yet what is the state of our people here? Aren’t some of us hungry too? Why is it easier to look outwardly to help others than to help ourselves? Do we understand the complex dynamics of any other country better than ours? Is our cultural fluency that much better to be able to help people overseas better than we can ourselves?

 

And more to the point: who or what politicizes starvation?

 

We all do.

 

In a fabulously poignant piece, Global Food Politics points out that we are in search of a new food politics – one where our food production is applied to our hunger rather than simply matching it with production. “Talking about increasing food production is part of a long tradition of offering technical solutions to social problems. The more difficult challenges—reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring access to food, and enabling communities to address the problems they face—are political and social in nature.”

And I’ll talk about something political, here: 1 in 6 Americans face hunger. 1 in 5 of those are children. Does that tug at your heartstrings?

In last week’s post, I talked about the idea that it’s hard to come into a community and implant an idea –  that the social aspect of nutrition is why we have such an issue with malnutrition here. I’ll argue that the reason we have such a hard time looking domestically is because we don’t know how to empower people in a way that encourages behavioral shifts. How are you going to change someone’s mind about “freedom of choice,” when you’re so busy telling them that what they’re doing is wrong? If you’ve ever felt the sting of someone’s unsolicited advice, you know what I’m talking about.

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The truth is that it’s definitely easier to give other people advice rather than follow it yourself. That fact is so well-touted that it has become a cliché. Yet here we are on the precipice of this generation living shorter lives than their parents (a first in human history), with 1 in 6 people going hungry and with our country’s health going right out the window.


If you need to ask yourself what hunger looks like, look around you. You might be surprised by what you see. And if you want information on how to better your community, look here.

Aside

How are Public Health and Food Deserts related?

I’ve been wanting to talk about Food Deserts for a while. The idea fascinates me and I just want to know everything about them. Sound weird? I know. I’m a nerd.

 

The concept of the Food Desert came around in the mid/late-’90’s in the UK to describe populated areas with little to no food availability, generally seen in poorer neighborhoods. And then a miracle happened: the sky opened up, raining hamburgers to cure this ill! Thus, the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was born. Just kidding. Rigorous study of the multifactorial nature of obesity’s link to poverty happened, resulting in what was recently published in Health Affairs: a study revealing that adding a supermarket with healthier food options had no significant impact on improving residents’ obesity or vegetable/fruit consumption.

 

But why?

 

The results of this study remind me of the worst/best teacher I’ve ever had: a tenured professor at the University of Colorado in the Ethnics Studies Department. He attended class maybe 10 times that semester (that may be overestimating), but set the class a semester-long project that he called the “Community Development Project.” It was a fake assignment that intended to show us (the class) the effects of implanting a government project into an impoverished, ethnic area. About once every two weeks, he finally would show up to class, see what we had accomplished within his parameters and added a new set of them, saying things like “You have this (read: super low) budget… work within that,” or “1 out of 5 people have a car and/or have reliable transportation – how will they attend regular visits to the hospital?” or “The community distrusts organizations handed down by the government. How do you get around this?”

 

The lesson learned was that language barriers, cultural barriers, habits, mistrust and this entire idea of “From the top-down” are all at play here in the multifactorial world of health issues and how to change a nation’s relation with… anything.

 

Apply this to food. How would you feel if someone planted a store in your neighborhood and expected you to shop there? Would you like it if someone told you – in an unsolicited way – that your diet was no good? That you needed to change? That you were too fat?

 

What we are coming to realize as a country is that health problems related to our food intake are multifactorial. We are dealing with social, environmental and biological problems that encourage the symptoms we see daily, and even though the AMA defined obesity as a disease last year, the health problems associated with our poor diets are what concerns me.

 

This is a concern for a lot of people – clearly Michelle Obama cares and clearly this study was carried out. The economic burden on our healthcare system of people who suffer from the ills of our sit-down, eat-this society have been made clear many times over. We have all (or most of us, anyway) heard about hypertension, diabetes, visceral fat, and fat people definitely know how this culture feels about fatness in relation with their health. They hear it every day.

 

So where do we start?

 

If I learned anything from my worst/best teacher, I have several questions:

  • Which communities want to change?

  • What pieces of their diet are cultural and which pieces aren’t?

  • What can we do to encourage communities to work within themselves to encourage healthy eating?

  • How can a government structure/organization lend a hand without being intrusive?
  • What are the systemic (within the system) barriers nation-wide to a collectively better nutrient density of our food?

  • What combination of branding, marketing, pricing and promotions would be effective in implementing change long-term?

  • How do we address cultural issues that root people to their diets?

  • Who – within each community – do we talk to about issues like this?

  • How do others (community leaders, countries, people) work within their communities to encourage positive change?

I really want to hear your ideas!

The Obesity Affairs

I was in the process of writing a post about a new study released by Health Affairs, detailing a supermarket in Philadelphia’s effect on healthier eating (Food Deserts, HUGE topic), and I just began to think to myself that I really don’t want to talk about it. What I want to talk about this week is the issue of obesity. Not in a clinical sense nor a sense like Michelle Obama’s initiatives, but in the sense that all this talk about obesity seems rather… reductionist.

 

Certainly, we can argue that obesity is an important barometer of our current situation in the United States (and now, world), but it is more than a disease, as classified last year by the AMA. I personally am frustrated with the rhetoric that repeats itself over and over in every study – that obesity is the cause of and answer to the world’s health problems – and that they can be measured by it.

 

I understand that this is an easy way to quantify nutritional reality. But it’s kinda bullshit. How do we measure obesity? Are we measuring it with the racially-biased BMI as our yardstick? More importantly, what are we doing with that information? I would argue that, more than anything, we are using the measurements of obesity and poverty to shame people into changing their behavior under the guise of health. AND, we aren’t taking a close look at the multifactorial issues that play into and along with that. Shaming people isn’t going to work. In the same way that studies show that happy workers are harder workers, happy people work harder to achieve goals. If we can all work together to encourage a common good and create a cultural shift starting from the ground-up, we’ll all be happier. And healthier.

 

Go ahead and throw stats at me like “studies show that obese workers are less productive,” or that “obese people put a burden on the healthcare system.” It all may be true (the second one definitely is), but the point is not about blame: it’s about what you do with that information.

 

Instead of simply discussing our weight, overweight or our increasing body size, let’s look at things like: the heart healthiness of a vegetable-rich diet? Let’s talk about the nature of “enriched” foods and how not great they do in terms of nationwide overall health? Sure, we saw the incidence of Rickets decline after the idea to introduce Vitamin D back into foods… but what do we see here? That the previous intake of those same processed foods didn’t contain Vitamin D, which caused the Rickets in the first place. That’s not a real change. And can we PLEASE talk about the amazing power of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber working in concert with one another?


We need to be looking deeper than the surface for our realities. At this point in the game, it’s really not paying off for us to be reductionist in our thinking – even some of the famous foodies are guilty of it. What is the best for us as a nation? What kind of studies could we do that would focus on health but not exclusively on obesity? What would you do to encourage a community to be more healthful? In the end, asking the people this problem affects is going to be the most thorough answer we’ve gotten yet – and the most effective. All, hopefully, done without shaming anyone.