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Reporting on the link between hunger and obesity

ASK THIS | February 16, 2005

The press should be asking whether hunger and food insecurity may, paradoxically, be increasing obesity in America. (Third in a series)

By Joel Berg


1) In some low-income communities, why is obesity on the rise -- as well as hunger?

2) What is the availability of nutritious, low-fat food and fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods versus wealthier neighborhoods?


Obesity is increasing among Americans from all economic backgrounds, but at a somewhat higher rate in some low-income communities. At the same time, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, the number of Americans living in households that suffered from food insecurity (the government classification for people who either go hungry or have unstable access to food) rose from 33.2 million in 2000 to 36.2 million in 2003, an increase of 9 percent in only three years.


How can both obesity and hunger be on the rise? The answer is that they are often flip sides of the same coin: malnutrition. According to "The Paradox of Hunger and Obesity in America," a paper written jointly by the Food Research Action Center and the Center on Poverty and Hunger, there are a number of reasons — including "the need to maximize caloric intake," "the trade-off between food quality and quantity," and "overeating when food is available" — that may cause obesity and food insecurity to co-exist. 


Leading causes of hunger and obesity are the lack of money to buy  — and the lack of easy access to  —  high-quality, nutritious food. According to the federal Consumer Price Index, white bread costs less than wheat bread; regular ground beef costs less than lean and extra lean ground beef; and cola costs less than orange juice. Furthermore, so-called "junk" food is easier to obtain in low-income, inner city neighborhoods than nutritious food. Low-income neighborhoods are far more likely to have only convenience stores and bodegas — in which unhealthy food is typically more readily available than fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats — than wealthier neighborhoods, which are more likely to have supermarkets and farmers' markets with a wider array of quality, nutritious food.


Does this mean that economic conditions and food availability are the only reasons that obesity is more prevalent in lower-income than in higher-income neighborhoods? No. There are many factors involved, including different levels of nutrition education corresponding to different levels of overall education.  But food price and food availability are certainly two key factors.


Additional experts that can be contacted by the press:


Edward M. Cooney, Executive Director, Congressional Hunger Center

202 547-7022 x 14


Ellen Vollinger, Legal Director, Food Research and Action Center

202-986-2200 x3016


Doug O'Brien, Vice President of Public Policy and Research

America’s Second Harvest

(312) 263-2303, ext. 158

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