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A Taste of Poverty: Responding to Obesity in the U.S.'s Poorest Communities

 A Taste of Poverty

Here’s a challenge: Assemble a Thanksgiving feast for 10 from the offerings of the neighborhood convenience store. You have $15 to spend. Ready, set, go.

Options will be found on the chips-and-crackers aisle, the candy-and-cake aisle and the cereal-bread-and-cat food aisle; in cases holding muffins and donuts, hot dogs and taquitos, breakfast and lunch sandwiches; in coolers for soda, beer and ice cream. One end of the refrigerator wall is reserved for a few half-gallons of milk and three or four dozen eggs. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables.

For people who live in certain low-income areas of Mississippi, where the nearest grocery store is several miles away, the only accessible place to purchase food is a convenience store.

On South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation, which is about the size of Connecticut, there is a single grocery store. It is 40 miles away from some or the reservation’s communities. Even if residents can get there, the prices are prohibitive.

In fact, such situations — known as “food deserts” — exist in many of ChildFund’s communities in Mississippi, the Great Plains and south Texas. Keeping a car is too expensive for many, and there is no public transportation.

These areas also represent the highest concentrations of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease nationwide. More than one in three Native American children born in 2000 will probably be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, according to Indian Health Services. In Mississippi, according to a report by the Trust for American Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, youth obesity tops rates in the rest of the nation, at 44 percent.

When the four food groups available are refined sugars, trans fats, white flour and salt, the correlations to poor health outcomes become clear. In fact, among people who work on food security issues, there is a movement to include obesity as a category of malnutrition, a word that literally means “bad” nutrition.

“Why don’t poor people just eat healthier?” is a frequent question, the answer to which is usually “Someone should teach them to make healthier choices.” While it is enormously important to teach people how to eat and cook more healthily, the benefit is sustainable only when they have access to the food it’s recommended that they cook.

ChildFund is hard at work in its U.S. programs to help children, youth, families and communities to increase their food security as well as their knowledge base about health and nutrition. Working alongside partners already in the communities, ChildFund is focusing on community and youth engagement approaches to hunger, proper nutrition and physical fitness.

In Mississippi, small children enjoy pre-school nutrition training, learning to make healthy choices by tasting different foods and through cooking experiences, stories and art. There and in South Dakota, children and youth are learning about the responsibilities of caring for a garden. A “Little Chef” program in South Dakota provides hands-on experience in the kitchen as well as guidelines for healthy eating. A bicycle program combines fitness with skills training for keeping the bikes in working order.

Oklahoma programs combine physical activity — baseball and softball fundamentals — with nutrition education. There is also a three-month program geared toward diabetes prevention, drawing activities from tribal tradition and history to build self-esteem, decision-making and goal-setting skills, and community involvement.

But the programs are young, and change is incremental. Meanwhile, government food programs do fill some of the gaps, but food stamps are used up quickly and the commodity foods received through government food distribution programs stretch only so far. In many cases, people’s resourcefulness closes the gaps further as they share and exchange with neighbors and avail themselves of local resources, however meager.

In Lasara, Texas, a small community of 250 families, there is a single small store where a gallon of milk costs $6. Most families travel 9 miles to the next town every two weeks, carpooling and packing the vehicle with supplies enough for three families at a time. Most of it is canned or nonperishable.

Many of these families and others in ChildFund’s U.S. program areas will enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal thanks to additional resources that tend to become available during the holidays. Changing the remaining 360-plus days of the year is the real challenge.


Any day of the year, try to prepare a meal for four under the following conditions:

  • You have a two-burner propane stove, one pot and one frying pan.
  • You have $10 to spend.
  • You may use no fresh fruit or vegetables.
  • Your refrigerator broke last year, and you haven’t been able to afford getting it fixed.

Scoring depends on the balance of protein and nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Ready, set, go.



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