Getting to the Root Causes of Poor Nutrition Among the Poorest in Western Civilzation

I think most of us can agree that when we look at the nutritional health of poor people, it's not what it could be. All we have to do is look at the SNAP (food stamps) program and the data showing how that money is being spent by those on the program. As this report from the USDA shows, 20% of SNAP funds are used to purchase sweetened soft drinks, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar. Meat, poultry and seafood are another 20% of each dollar spent. And we can see the results of poor nutrition in the poor through the levels of obesity and diabetes and other health-related issues.

The easy answer is to blame the poor of course and to suggest taking away SNAP expenditures for unhealthy foods. And in fact, there are currently over 150 Congressional Representatives, mostly Republicans, who want to do just that. They are introducing into the 2019 budget resolution a proposal requiring States to restrict SNAP purchases to "healthy foods." But as I said, that's the easy answer, and it is in fact no answer at all. It will make life harder for the poor, but it does little to improve their nutrition.

The poor have a number of problems that need to be addressed first, including eliminating food deserts, education to help with understanding of proper nutrition and how to prepare foods, establishing a healthy living environment through schools, workplaces, churches and civic facilities, a supportive community and reducing stresses that lead to overeating of the wrong foods. Those are the kinds of things that will address the root cause of poor nutrition in poor environments.

There are organizations, both local and national, that are working to overcome these kind of issues. One that is 100% whole food, plant-based was recently started by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his son, Nelson Campbell is the PlantPure Communities Oasis Program. This program seeks to offer healthy meals and nutritional education in low income neighborhoods. The name of the program says it all. It is seeking to bring good plant-based nutrition into food deserts. Here are some of the things that it offers to do:

  • Training in urban farming/gardening
  • Providing access to farmers markets
  • Instruction in mindfulness-based stress reduction
  • Access to whole food, plant-based (WFPB) school meals
  • Whole food, plant-based (WFPB) nutrition classes, cooking demos, and grocery shopping tours
  • WFPB lifestyle support groups
  • Workshops on goal-setting and financial literacy
  • Effective Communications and Human Relations Workshop
  • Physical fitness/movement
Another national program is the Blue Zones Project. While it is not specifically oriented toward poor communities and it is not 100% whole food, plant-based, it is a "plant-slant" program based on diets of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. And that is primarily whole food, plant-based.  And communities who establish Blue Zones Projects within them end up helping the poorer areas of their communities as well.

These are initiatives that are well worth supporting and becoming active in. They get to what the real issues are. They recognize that people who live in food deserts, who are uneducated when it comes to nutrition and who are surrounded by fast food restaurants and advertisements for junk food directed at their children cannot be held at fault for the poor choices that they make. It takes community effort to really resolve these kind of issues.

Just stopping SNAP money from being spent on unhealthy foods will not be very helpful to people who live in food deserts. It would be like me offering my readers a free dinner at Candle 79, one of New York City's finest plant-based restaurants. Readers who live in and around New York City would benefit. And those who plan to visit New York City in the near future would benefit. But nobody else would. And that's what would happen with SNAP money. Those who live in areas where healthy foods are available would benefit. Those who don't, who live in food deserts, won't. And what that will do then is it will create a black market for their SNAP dollars. And people who would normally eat healthy anyway will end up getting those SNAP dollars. Just as if you lived in California, you might go on the internet and offer to sell my coupon for Candle 79 to someone in New York City.

But beyond not helping the poor, I wonder if we really want government dictating how we eat. I know I don't. Government is beholden to the dollars that come from industries like the meat, dairy, sugar and pharmaceutical industries. Those dollars are going to dictate how politicians and government employees think. So, how do you think SNAP is going to define healthy foods? You can bet on it that the definition of healthy foods will include meat, dairy, eggs and sugar (but in moderation of course).

And when we give government the power to dictate how other people (the poor) eat, how long do you think it will take before government seizes the power to dictate how we eat. I know I don't want government deciding for me, for example, that a low carb diet is what's healthy and so that's what is going to be pushed on me. Government has done enough of a hack job on nutrition with its pyramids, MyPlates and Dietary Guidelines supported by the meat and dairy industries.

In my opinion, government is too much in our food system. Major subsidies to the meat and dairy industry continue to hurt people's health on an ongoing basis by making meat and dairy products cheaper than they should be.

It's time to stop the madness and get behind efforts that address real causes and not symptoms of our problems as a nation with food. We can start by looking at those two programs I mention in this blog post. We can start in our churches. We can start by going into poor churches and schools where poor children are taught. Perhaps it's as simple as teaching them to garden. Teaching them to cook. We can start by petitioning stores and markets selling healthy foods to go into food deserts and set up shop.

And we can stop government from subsidizing industries and supporting industries that provide too much unhealthy foods at cheap prices.

J Lanning Smith
May 3, 2018