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At the Intersection of Obesity and Poverty

November 18, 2014

“Poor, fat people have no excuse to not eat healthy.” This was a statement I saw a while ago on Facebook and it had me thinking. Do these people that say these kinds of thing understand what they are talking about? Do they know what it is like to be this way and not have many options?

I would think that such people would do more research on the topics of obesity and poverty, but that is asking too much from a population that is more concerned about what is happening in pop culture than learning how to debate properly. More importantly, the lack empathy and sympathy for people in less unfortunate circumstances than they are. In other words, they should actually find out what poverty entails and why there are so many poor, fat people in the first place. I am such one person.

I was born into poverty; my mother lived off welfare during the first part of my childhood. She didn’t go to college to make a living for herself. She did eventually go to work at Witmark when I was around five yearsEmpty Cupboard old, working as a camera salesperson. She didn’t get an hourly wage, but rather commission off whatever she sold. Sometimes she had a good day and others she didn’t, but I do remember that we were on food stamps and also got government subsidized foodstuffs like cheese and dry milk.

Despite this, my mom did cook good, nutritious food as you could get a full cart of groceries for $20 back in the 1980s. Later on, my mother became a freelance interpreter for the deaf and met my stepdad when I was 11. She married my stepdad in 1991 and we moved into the inner city. My stepdad worked at GM, but even with the money that he made, we were still poor.

My mother continued to work as a deaf interpreter at Kendall College for several years before she became ill and had to go on disability. My mother was a type 1 diabetic and had health problems as a result of it. In January of this year, she passed away.

I’m not going to get into my whole history, but I am 34 years old (going to be 35 in January) and on disability myself; so yes, I am poor, and I know firsthand the struggles that come with being poor and living off the government. See, many people in this country have a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” meritocratic attitude.

How many times have you heard mostly-Republican politicians or your conservative uncle talk about how poor people are lazy and shouldn’t be getting a handout? What about the stereotype of the so-called “welfare queen,” a woman who has long nails, a nice car, sporting a weave and the latest fashions despite being poor? I’m pretty sure you could count the many times you have come across these sayings on both hands — I surely can. As someone living in poverty, I am constantly reminded by society that I am a failure and unworthy.

I am also a fat woman — a small fat, that is, since I fit into a size US 18. Nevertheless, I am fat and in today’s American society. There are larger people but the question is, is poverty and obesity correlated? One study seems to suggest so:

Poverty rates and obesity were reviewed across 3,139 counties in the U.S. In contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity. Counties with poverty rates of >35% have obesity rates 145% greater than wealthy counties.

I see this around me every day, especially when I am driving through the poorer areas of my city. The more inner city that I go, the more fat people that I see; and when I drive through the more affluent areas, the more thin people that I see. I also should say that if you are poor, you are more than likely going to feel really, really stressed out, which also has been shown to increase obesity rates. I mean, nothing adds stress more than having to worry about things like rent, bills, and other financial stuff.

“But if you are poor and on food stamps, then you should be responsible for what you feed your family and get healthy foods.” This is another claim that I see when people argue about obesity and poverty that is fallacious. This site shows how much a family of four might get in food stamps, which is around $649 per month. Now, that may sound like a lot to most, but in reality it isn’t. Not to mention that not everyone will get this amount and some may get even less than that.

My sister, who is also on food stamps, only gets approximately $519 for a family of five. On top of that, food stamps can be cut on the whim of the government. For example, my state, Michigan, was one of four states that was slated to get cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. My own food stamps went from $189 to $83 — that’s a 44% decrease in benefits. Now, tell me how I can afford “good, healthy foods” living on only $83 dollars per month?

Remember how I said that my mother could get a lot of food for only $20 back in the 1980s? Well, that isn’t true in today’s times, inflation has caused food prices to increase exponentially over the last few decades so that now you can only get a few things for the same amount. I am not good with numbers but here is a good article about food prices and inflation (PDF).

Now, if you were in the same situation as me or my sister, would you spend money on food that will only last a few days or would you spend money on food that will last an entire month until you receive your benefits? Chances are you are going to get foods that are packed with preservatives, processed and mass produced. Sure, you could get frozen fruits and vegetables or buy a bag of apples, but fresh produce is, as a whole, expensive in the long haul and counterproductive to invest in each month. I also should mention something called food insecurity. Yes, right here in the good ol’ USA, there are people who are starving due to such basic issues as not having transportation to get to a supermarket.

Another statement I see online is “you don’t need to go to a gym to get exercise, just go for a walk outside.” Well, I am pretty lucky, as where I live is pretty safe and also the apartment complex that I live in has a small fitness center, so I can exercise if I want to. However, others aren’t so lucky.

During my teen years, my mother didn’t let me go out for walks or other activities alone out of fear for my safety. As a consequence, I did start gaining weight. It wasn’t until I got my job at Walgreen’s during my sophomore year that I was allowed to walk alone to my job. Many low-income families live in areas where there is more crime, like shootings, assault and, for many women, rape. So it isn’t that farfetched that poor people wouldn’t venture out and go for a walk in their neighborhood no matter the time of day.

Also, another factor is that most low-income people are working two jobs or more, and are probably exhausted and not thinking about exercise. Another thing is that many low-income families and individuals don’t own a vehicle and have to rely on public transportation, so getting to a nice park is out of the question. Of course, a person can exercise at home, but as I said above there are many who have two jobs and have other factors to contend with, like raising children, stress, depression and other things that prevent someone who is poor from exercising.

Of course, there are some programs designed to help those on the lower ranks of the economic class, one of which is the “double-up” program at the farmer’s market. This is where an individual or family on food stamps can get $40 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables, but this is only during the summer months and not year round. Another helpful option is food pantries, however, the food quality is not that great and some are even expired!

I don’t know how many times that I have gotten food from a pantry and it was a year over the expiration date. There are also inner city gardens called community gardens that have popped up in the recent years, as well as school lunch programs for kids in school. There may be programs out there that I am unaware of as well. But while there may be some help, it still isn’t enough to combat the so-called “obesity epidemic” because to “fight” against obesity means dealing with the issue of poverty and there are many who don’t want to address those issues. Poor people in general may not be aware of what options they have, if any.

As a poor person, I struggle with trying to provide myself with healthy things, but it is difficult to do on such a limited budget. I only get $741 a month in Social Security disability and most of that goes toward my bills. I rarely have any money for spending and even then I can’t purchase food with them, as the spending money goes toward my needs rather than my wants.

I think anyone who is in a more privileged, higher income class who talks down on me or anyone who is poor and tells us that we are just making excuses for being the way we are is offensive. There certainly is no understanding of the struggles of fat, poor people among these types who just want to belittle us. I say to them walk in our shoes and take the SNAP Challenge and find out for yourselves.

Dow Jones Sig

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