Tag Archives: obesity

vegetables, Image from Morguefile

Food Stamps and Food Deserts: What’s the answer?

vegetables, Image from MorguefileWhile there have been a few updates in the 47 years since Congress passed The Food Stamp Act, most within the program have been relatively small.   Recently the program did away with stamps in exchange for a convenient card loaded with benefits and to go along with this new look, updated it’s name to the Supplemental Food Nutrition Program or SNAP.  Still the SNAP benefits serve the same purpose as the food stamps before it: to help ensure that individuals are receiving enough sustenance to keep them from the brink of starvation.

However, these days a new hurdle in feeding those in need has developed.  In the past, food was easily found at the corner store, local grocery or maybe even at a local farm or dairy.  Things are different in today’s economy, where many stores like these have closed in favor of big box supermarkets that can provide for larger areas and less access to farms.  This means instead of just worrying about if their benefits will be enough to feed their family, recipients are now also struggling to find a place to purchase their food.

Not having readily available food stores, referred to as food deserts, has become a hot button topic popping up everywhere from food blogs all the way up to the First Lady.   According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”

Because of these so-called deserts, which are largely populated by people on assistance, many are forced to do their shopping at nearby convenience and/or liquor stores.   Though it seems somewhat surprising that places like this would even be able to accept the SNAP  benefits, it is relatively easy for these and similar locations to meet the specifications.  The Record Searchlight says, “To apply, a potential Supplemental Food Nutrition Program retailer has to show that more than half of the total dollar amount spent at a store, including purchases of food, gas and services, must come from the sale of “eligible staple foods” such as meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; or dairy products.”  This issue combined with the fact that the majority of states don’t have many restrictions on what can be purchased with the funds, has played a large part in the growing obesity rate among those enrolled in SNAP.

fast food, image from morguefileAn alternative solution to food deserts has been to allow the use of SNAP benefits to purchase fast food.   This has already been approved in states like Arizona, Michigan and parts of California.   New America Media has reported that the idea has even gained support from a group called Feeding America, comprised of executives from many large food companies.  This support is due to the fact that these food companies would see increased revenue due to to their stock in these restaurants.    But for patrons on SNAP benefits, having the money to buy French fries and chicken fingers doesn’t exactly make the growing obesity rate go down any more than buying foods from the local gas station.   However, according to WalletPop.com there is a valid reason for this approach.  The site says that, “The idea here is that many homeless SNAP recipients, as well as those with unstable living conditions — say, those who are sleeping on the couch of family or friends, or who are living in cramped and insufficient quarters — don’t have a place to prepare food.”  Essentially, the thought behind allowing SNAP use at fast food restaurants is that warm pre-prepared food,  is better than no food at all.  Fast food is often also easy to find in food deserts and they often offer nutritional options like salads.

As many are working towards simply providing those with SNAP benefits with any of food to keep them from starving, there is a bigger movement trying to make sure that the food is not just available, but also nutritious.  One such program, called Wholesome Wave, operates in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut.      The basis of this initiative is that farmer’s markets are set up in areas, most often in a food desert, and SNAP benefits are not only accepted for food purchases, but are actually doubled.  This means those using the benefits are able to get more food for the same price while simultaneously stimulating their local economy.  In an article from the Stamford Advocate it states that, “In 2008, Moody’s, the credit ratings and economic analysis provider, found that one food stamp dollar, when spent in a bodega or ordinary grocery store, created $1.73 in economic stimulus. The impact of the same food stamp dollar spent on regionally grown produce is still being studied by Wholesome Wave, but theories indicate that one SNAP dollar spent at a farmers’ market may create over $3 in local economic stimulus.”

Another attempt at providing healthy alternatives was recently announced by First Lady Michelle Obama.  During a news conference she stated that stores like Walgreens and Wal-Mart will soon open new locations to help decrease the food deserts.  The California Endowment reports that the California FreshWorks Fund will loan $200 million to establish stores that will provide healthy foods (eligible for SNAP benefits) in food deserts in California as well as stimulate the economies in which they reside.

After this announcement, some have come out against the partnership with big corporations instead of supporting smaller, local retailers.  However, SFWeekly.com puts the issue into a bit of a different perspective, “We think of Wal-Mart the same way we do of Starbucks: When we have a choice, we stop at locally owned cafes, but the chain has made it possible to get a decent cup of coffee in rural and suburban cities across the nation.”  The article goes on to add,“Sure, it’d be great to see independently run stores open in all those places, but it’s more important to find cabbage, oranges, and strawberries.”

Currently all of these groups, with ideas that cover a vast spectrum, are working to improve the situation of those who receive SNAP benefits and/or live in food deserts.  It may turn out that one option is better than another or with more observation the answer may be that combining several options is the solution.  In the end, only time will tell what will be both financially and nutritionally successful.

Please share your comments below on the food stamp (SNAP) and food desert issue and your suggestions on how you think the current situation could be improved.

July 2014 Update: Below are resources passed along by HumanityCampaign.org:

Central’s Week in Brief: July 15, 2011

Every Friday Central brings you stories from the week that you might have missed, but that are definitely worth a look. We’ll feature food news covering everything from the weird to the wonderful in the world of restaurants, schools, the military and more.  It’s our way to help you go into the weekend with a little extra knowledge and maybe even a project or recipe to try out!

1)      With all of the pushes on starting gardens, whether at schools, in the community or at home, you’d think any attempt at growing fresh veggies would be applauded.  However, this week a Michigan woman actually potentially faced time in jail for planting a garden because….it was in her front yard.  Apparently, the issue was the garden wasn’t considered suitable plant life for a front yard.  The woman, Julie Bass, received a warning, a ticket and then charged with a misdemeanor that could have led to up to 93 days in jail.  However, now the charge may be dropped due to a huge media backlash including a Facebook page, blog and a ton of other media attention.

2)      An opinion piece recently came out by an obesity doctor at Children’s Hospital Boston and a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health.   With just this info many would be hard pressed to think that this could be anything other than great advice and/or wonderful guidelines.  This isn’t exactly the case in this situation.  The piece suggested that when a child is morbidly obese, the state should put the child into foster care instead of performing surgery to make the problem go away.   This has created a huge backlash on the internet from parents, experts and everyone in between and has brought on much different, less extreme suggestions such as family nutrition education.

3)      Speaking of removing children, a restaurant outside Pittsburgh has banned children under 6.  While this isn’t exactly anything new (recently former Top Chef contestant Dale Levitsky put a similar ban at his restaurant for brunch), it has caught some flack from parents.  However, since this restaurant is on a golf facility where people with children aren’t a huge part of the daily patronage, the receipts have actually grown around 20%.

4)      On a totally opposite note, the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining launched the Kids LiveWell program this week.  This program has been developed to create healthier meals for children at restaurants.  Currently, 19 different national brands are participating.  In order to be a part of the program, the restaurant must have at least one full kids meal under 600 calories, one individual kids item under 200 calories, display the nutritional info on the menu and identify the healthy items on the menu.

5)      And since it’s been getting pretty hot lately (it’s been in the 90’s here pretty often this week), why not cool off with a nice cold smoothie?   Eating Rules has a very interesting flowchart to figure out how to make the perfect smoothie for both your cravings and health.  And if you’d rather go by a recipe, check out Smoothie Web which even has an iPhone app called Pocket Smoothies for your smoothie needs on the go.  Or just check out this yummy looking Mango Strawberry Banana Smoothie from their site.

Hot Dogs, Image from MorgueFile

Competitive Eating – A Tradition of Excess

Hot Dogs, Image from MorgueFileYesterday , thousands watched in awe (and maybe a little disgust) as Joey Chestnut won the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, NY.  In a nation with a huge obesity rate and a penchant for tradition and competition, it’s only natural that each year people come out in droves to witness this 10 minute face-stuffing food extravaganza.  But other than the obvious risk of gaining a little or possibly a LOT of weight, are there other downsides to competitive eating?  What about the benefits?  Here’s a deeper look at just what makes these contests so grossly enthralling.

How Did Competitive Eating Start?

While most may not realize it, eating contests have been around for a pretty long time.  According to Time, it goes all the way back to the 13th century with a Norse myth of a God and servant having a battle to see who could consume the most.    But while Gods may have competed against mere mortals in those days, in more recent times it’s become a man to man and now even man to woman race to prove who is truly the best.  This tradition is most commonly associated with the Nathan’s which is now the biggest contest around.  Nathan’s competition is said by Time to have started in 1916 as a contest between four immigrants to prove who was most patriotic.  During this 95-year tenure, the contest has only been cancelled twice.  Nathan’s website says this happened in 1941, as a protest to the war in Europe, and in 1971, as a protest to civil unrest and the reign of free love.   With a history like this it’s difficult to see much of a downside to something now considered by many as a “sport.”

Is Competitive Eating Dangerous?

Unlike other “sports,” crowds flock to these over-indulgence events to see their fellow man and/or woman take calories in instead of the usual opposite effect of athletic events.   However, like their sometimes leaner counterparts many of these athletes with appetites do some major training in preparation for their big shot at glory.

Contestants like Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champion Joey Chestnut are among those who train as if preparing for a marathon run.   While Chestnut does have several training sessions of stuffing himself to the gills prior to the big day, he also has a few eating habits that might sound a bit perplexing.  An article in Forbes magazine reports, “He fasts in between, takes protein supplements and begins each morning with a half-gallon of milk.”  The article continues, “Two and a half days before to the July 4 hot dog contest, Chestnut will stop eating solid foods and nourish himself with supplements, milk and lots of water to empty his system.”

So it’s not all just hot dogs and pride, but a pretty strict routine that gets eaters into fighting shape.  But could all of this gluttony be an unhealthy stressor on the body’s system?  The true medical decision is a bit split.   There is always the opportunity for competitors to go just one bite too far, leaving them with a serious medical condition.   There is the threat of “stomach perforations in people with undiagnosed ulcers,” Shanthi Sitaraman, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta told WebMD.   Dr. David Metz, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pennsylvania, added in the same article warnings against water intoxication and gastroparesis.   Water intoxication can happen due to dilution of electrolytes in the blood since many eaters both drink large amounts of water as well as dip food in water to make it go down easier during competitions.  Gastroparesis can happen if the stomach is stretched too much, too many times and results in sufferers no longer being able to empty their stomach.  Doctors also fear that watching tournaments like this could have an influence on both obesity and eating disorders.  However, in the end, as long as the eaters are taking care of themselves and not consistently eating portions similar to those ingested on game day, chances are they will live a relatively healthy life.

What’s the Point?

With overstuffing and health risks, is there an actual point to all this maximum capacity gobbling?   For contestants, television channels and restaurants the answer is a big YES!

While it’s always a great feeling to accomplish a challenge, it’s even better to know that around 50,000 people are watching on TV and that if you win you could take home a treasure of thousands of dollars.  These promises are what inspire competitors like Chestnut and his counterparts to down gallon after gallon of milk or work their way through Texas-sized steaks.   Contests like The Krystal Square Off promise the biggest prizes in the eating world ($20,000 as of 2009) for the top dogs, according to Business Pundit.

Fame can also be a huge draw, not only for contestants but also the restaurant sponsoring the contest.  The Major League of Eating helps these locations go from being just another restaurant to the place to go for the biggest or most or best whatever their speciality may be.  The MLE also helps to ensure that contests get maximum media coverage.  On their website they state, “Media that routinely cover events include CNN, BBC, NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Sports Illustrated, FHM Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Smithsonian Magazine, US Magazine, Time Magazine and The Times of London.”  This coverage is also supplemented by internet and local coverage along with word of mouth and visits to the location by shows like Man vs. Food.

And then there is the interest of sponsor which could mean big bucks for contestants, restaurants and TV.   Since there is so much more to the contest than just the eating (think drinks, indigestion and even some stretchy sweatpants for post-contest comfort) this means there are endless opportunities for sponsors to leave their impression on avid viewers and attendees.  However, these spots are only up for grabs if the price is right.  And really who would want to pass up a chance to be seen as THE ketchup of the food version of the Super Bowl?!  These sponsorships can also go beyond just the single event to becoming the only one of its specialty to be served at the competition’s restaurant or the only brand of stretchy sweatpants the champion wears for the next year or more.   This means even bigger money and brand recognition for everyone involved.  The MLE says previous sponsors of some of their biggest events (they hold about 80 a year) include: “Procter & Gamble (Pepto-Bismol), Heinz Ketchup, Old Navy, Netflix, Coca-Cola, 7-Eleven, ESPN, Jimmy John’s, La Costena, Harrah’s Entertainment, Isle of Capri Casinos, Cedar Fair Entertainment, Johnsonville Sausage and Roy Rogers.”

While press and money never hurt, there is also one more common reason for an eating contest.  Like any good athlete or sport, competitive eating has a heart somewhere under all those hot dogs.   Several restaurants hold contests to see who can chomp down the most with all of the proceeds going to charity.  In QSR Magazine, the Boston arm of the Qdoba franchise was applauded for its involvement in creating an event to raise money for the Kevin Youkilis Hits for Kids Foundation by having an eating contest along with musicians and more.  And while sponsors and television coverage may be a great perk, it can be an even better feeling to know that all that chow is going towards a great cause.

Would you enter an eating contest?  We want to know why or why not.  If you have already participated, we’d love to hear your story too.  Please share with us below.

Remove; Image from MorgueFile

Advertising to Children: Harmless Fundraising or Obesity Threat?

Remove; Image from MorgueFileWe’ve all seen them, whether it was when we ourselves were kids or just last week:  Advertisements featuring happy, healthy kids running into the kitchen for a meal or snack.   It sounds harmless enough until you factor in that many of these ads are pushing items like sugary cereal, drinks with copious amount of food dyes and other items with way more than the daily recommended amount of fat, calories, etc.   While that may be bad enough, it gets worse when you realize that many (if not most) of the commercials for sweetened or fatty food and drink are geared towards school-aged children.  The Federal Trade Commission stated that, “The food industry spent more than $1.6 billion in 2006 alone to market messages to kids promoting foods that often are high in calories and low in nutrition.”  Taking into consideration that one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, what can be done to make sure that future generations have a fighting chance against food advertisers?

In recent years, there has been at least a glimmer of hope on this front in the form of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign.   Although her terms are voluntary, she has put out a plea to food manufacturers to reexamine how they market to kids up to age 17.  Mrs. Obama gave this message to manufacturers saying, “It’s going to be so critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy. And if there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention…You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.”  According to Obama Foodorama, Mrs. Obama’s Principle can be broken down into two areas.

1)      Food advertising and marketing aimed at children up to age 17 should encourage them to choose foods that “make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans.”

2)      Saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be “limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight.”

In order to really make a difference, the Federal Trade Commission is shooting for all of the food industry to join in with the saturated fat, trans fat and sugar guidelines by 2016 and the sodium guidelines by 2021.  A forum will take place to discuss the Principles on Tuesday, May 24 with public comments being considered.

But while Mrs. Obama’s Principles are a huge step forward in admitting that there is a problem and making an attempt to fix it, it’s crucial to know that at the same time children are now being faced with advertisements in a place that is unavoidable: schools.   Because kids must attend school, advertisers have begun targeting the education system as a way to gain a captive audience while kicking a little money back for learning costs.

While some school advertising could be inconspicuous and never even seen by students (According to Time Magazine, a Massachussets school has been approached about placing advertising on the roof for planes to see while passing over), most are right within the eyesight and impressionable minds of students.  One of the biggest proponents of this, according to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, is a program seen in many schools each morning called Channel One.   The Center says that Channel One currently reaches 8 million middle and high school students each day, showing two minutes of advertising during a single news broadcast.  And while many would think of encouraging kids to watch the news every day as educational, it may actually be costing more than it is worth.  According to a 1998 study on the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, it was found that $26,333 is spent by the average secondary school on just the commercials shown during a year’s worth of Channel One programming.

Advertising in schools isn’t all just on the TV though.  In school districts like the one in St. Francis, Minnesota, 10-15% of the lockers are covered in ads.  In many townships, extra money has been awarded for struggling programs like art and music by putting ads on the sides of school buses (sometimes up to $1,000 per bus).   There have even been lessons to teach students about wildlife and architecture promoted by companies such as Exxon and McDonald’s.

In these cases, it seems there are only a few choices.  Instead of waiting for Mrs. Obama’s Principles to become a reality, there is  always the opportunity for communities to rally together to ensure local schools are not promoting products, especially those for foods that could lead to increased obesity and related health issues.   It’s also imperative to explore all options of raising money when a district is presented with the option of combining advertising and education.  Finally, it’s important to educate children about eating healthy and making decisions based on that instead of a commercial or signage.

Are unhealthy foods used in your or your child’s school?  What are your thoughts on advertising to children both in and out of school?  Please share your comments with us below.

Image from MorgueFile

Growing Healthier Students through School Gardens

Image from MorgueFileOften the options offered for school lunch are either less than appetizing or not very healthy.  The alternative to these selections is to provide meals plentiful in fruits, vegetables and other healthy and creative items.  Most parents, school board members and others would be quick to choose the second option to make ensure school-age children are full of energy and to avoid looming issues like obesity.   However, it’s not always quite that easy.  Frequently, when schools switch over to these nutritious offerings, students end up tossing more than they eat.  There’s also the increased expense of providing fresh, unprocessed food.   What can be done to solve this dilemma?  Many, including First Lady Michelle Obama who is currently writing a book about her White House Kitchen Garden, believe gardens could be the answer.

You may be wondering, other than just providing vegetables, what is the point of having a school garden.   Many sources say that the biggest benefit is the connection between the food and what is actually happening in the garden.  According to Sallie Marston, professor in the School of Geography and Development and co-manager of the University of Arizona’s school garden program,  “These children are physically involved in the garden in ways that teach them all kinds of stuff about soil, water, the hydrological cycle, pest control, intermixing plant varieties – you name it.”

This type of opportunity also allows teachers, parents and volunteers to open up student’s eyes to what they are eating and gives an opening to educate them on new items, as simple as fresh spinach or different varieties of tomatoes.   Karol Fink a dietitian with the Alaska Department of Health told the Anchorage Daily News, “Because of economics, of family practices or culture, some students have just not been exposed to healthy foods. Trying food from an early age is key.”   Many times, this exposure becomes the responsibility of the school and school gardens provide a perfect chance for the healthy foods to become more commonplace.

By teaching lessons in the garden about what certain foods are, as well as giving the opportunity to take a taste test, students may just discover that what they’ve refused to try at lunch may just not be so bad after all.  In an article in the Pueblo Chieftain, it says “According to the California School Garden Network, studies have shown that “garden-based” nutrition education can significantly increase children’s consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables along with their understanding of food and its relationship to their health.”

This should solve the entire lunch conundrum.  These gardens provide students not only with education and an opportunity to expand their culinary horizons, but also with a great, extremely fresh source to supply their cafeterias.  But it’s not that simple.

One of the biggest issues facing school gardens is that many schools are not currently allowed to use the food grown in school gardens in their own cafeteria.  To combat this in Hawaii, Rep. Jessica Wooley (D, Laie-Kahaluu), has introduced House Bill 198.  This bill would allow school grown vegetation to be used in cafeterias if the garden is first inspected and certified by the Department of Agriculture.  However, this solution still poses an issue considering the amount of time the inspection and certification take and currently, the bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.  Similarly, in Chicago guidelines prevent school consumption of food from their gardens because they don’t currently use “commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson, in an article in the Chicago Tribune.

While school gardens may not always work in all ways or solve all of the issues posed today in school nutrition, it is still important to remember that ideas like this can put school-aged children on the right track to leading a healthier lifestyle.  Each step, whether it’s getting students to try a new healthy food at lunch or cultivating a garden that could feed the entire school, is one in the right direction.  One great thought on this comes from Dexter Kishida, school food coordinator in Hawaii.  Kishida told the Honolulu Star Advertiser about their gardens, saying, “This is not about raising farmers. It’s about raising eaters who understand what it takes to get that (food) to the table.”

For more information on starting your own school garden, check out KidsGardending.org or talk to your local school board.