Friday, November 5, 2010

The Economics of Obesity

You know what has really been getting a lot of traction these days? The anti-obesity movement or as I like to call it, Fat-shaming Jerks Go Judge-y.

There are many, many problems with the so-called obesity wars and really, it's not anyone's damn business if a person is overweight or obese (yes, even in the Canada where it can be a "strain on the healthcare system", cough cough *bullshit*) outside of that person's very close loved ones. But, the issue that has really been getting my goat lately has been the judge Reinhold's who are suggesting that poor people are fat because they are:
a) stupid
b) irresponsible
c) lazy
d) too in love with teh cheezburgerz
e) all of the above

In reality, accessibility to healthy food is the number one factor in a 'poverty diet'. It is easy to eat healthy if one has access to healthy food (I really hope that statement sounds as ridiculously obvious to everyone as it does to me).


Fresh vegetables? Luxury!
I have been poor, thousands of dollars under the poverty line poor, but I have always had the privilege of living in a dense, urban, solidly middle-class neighbourhood. This has afforded me the opportunity of doing my grocery shopping at a within-walking-distance Loblaws; a supermarket flush with organics, fresh veggies and fruits, a butcher, a deli and a bake shop. Spending sixty dollars at Loblaws allowed me to stock up on loads of fruits and vegetables, Ontario pork-chops and lean ground beef, whole grain bread and enough canned items to pull all of it together; I was eating relatively healthy for a relatively low price.

The significance of this is that while I was poor and I was able to afford good, whole foods, I was also only having to feed myself and I was living in a neighbourhood poised to serve middle-class families.

Even given those factors there were times, a lot of times, where I had to make due with say $50 to cover me for two weeks, times when I had to make the decision between buying healthy food and buying food that would fill me up and give me the most immediate bang for my buck, like Mr Noodle packs or Kraft Dinner, foods entirely devoid of nutrients but drowning in sodium.

I challenge everyone to go into a low-income neighbourhood grocery store and try and find healthy food options and could feed a whole family that don't cost an arm and a leg (in relative terms, say for a family of four that is subsisting on $100 a month for food). Those stores are offering the worst food for the best price; chips and soda and hamburger helper and processed meat. The produce is limp, washed out, bruised and overpriced; the meat is grey and old; the bread is nothing but white.

Of course there could be a better supermarket just a bus ride away but that bus ride away means more time and more money, resources that in lower-income families are incredibly valuable.

Food is one of the great pleasures in life; the sensory aspect cannot be overlooked. I know that when I am hungry or when I am feeling particularly down all I want is to eat crappy, cheap food like McDonalds; food that tastes good (hurray for salt and trans-fats!) and fills me up.

Last year when I was in the throes of clinical depression, I gained twenty plus pounds from lack of exercise (another privilege of financial/lack of dependents we take for granted!) and unhealthy but satisfying eating habits. I am not saying that all poor people are clinically depressed but the lack of options, the lack of help and the day-to-day struggles of providing essential needs to a family can lead to demoralization and deep-seated unhappiness; there is a cycle involved in unhealthy eating habits that cannot be denied.

The idea that obesity is caused by ignorance paired with laziness reeks of classism and ignorance itself. The ability to look at privilege, whether it's white privilege, middle class or wealthy privilege or male privilege, and see that not everyone is blessed with the same opportunities or options is only going to become more necessary as we continue on this path of environmental, economical and cultural decline.

The critics who are suggesting that poor people are purposely making their children, themselves fat, are ignoring that there are more factors at play than simply making a conscience decision to eat unhealthy food.

To summarize: Not everyone has access to healthy, affordable food. Not everyone has time or energy to spend time preparing a non-processed meal, certainly not after working long hours or physical labour. When faced with the urgency of hunger, not everyone wants to or can get on a bus and travel to a better supermarket.

It is time to start looking at the institution of poverty in relation to access to healthy food and trying to come up with ways for people of lower income to have the opportunity to choose whether to eat well or not instead of judging and blaming.

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