We have a National Obesity Awareness Month. It would be weird to have a conference for National Obesity Awareness Month where you went to the breakfast table and got to eat the things that poor families have to eat. A bowl of Lucky Charms, or Frosted Flakes, or the terrible sugar laden cereal-du-jour. And sodas, lots of sodas. Quarter waters in fun, toxic colors. One out of four children here is obese.
There are a few policies in the United States that increase obesity because the policies spur people to eat non-nutritious or marginally nutritious high calorie foods. We legislate fatness: a tiny Food Stamp monthly benefit that people are in danger of losing every six months: all it takes is a missing paper or a missing signature to get you and your kids kicked off of Food Stamps. Plus: states that funnel lots of welfare money away from our neighbors and family who need money, towards other stuff the states don’t want to pay for. Plus welfare administrators who think it is okay to say, build a bridge with welfare benefits instead of using the state’s infrastructure money. Stuff like this.
Plus no plan to fix this stuff that makes no sense.
It also doesn’t make sense that no legislators seem terribly upset, for example, that a poor person in Ohio sells a pint of blood to get money to eat in a blighted small city. Maybe in other states, too.
It doesn’t make sense that anyone would think we actually don’t want to have obese citizens, when our policies are crafted to assure a high level of malnutrition and destitution. Obesity IS malnutrition. Given the extent to which we don’t help poor people, obesity is a sure outcome.
If we wanted children to eat nutritious food, we might raise the Food Stamp allotment, for example. In Michigan, a family of four gets $76 a month in food aid. On average a person who qualifies for Food Stamps help in the United States gets $4.50 a day. There is no effort to factor in the cost of living of a costly state. There is currently talk at the USDA–the administrator of Food Stamps–this week, April 2018–to add more obstacles to Food Stamp receipt in the name of making people find work in a nation of disappearing jobs. It doesn’t make sense that we are turning eating into a perverse scavenger hunt while every day there are fewer jobs to earn the dollars we need to eat with.
Unreasonable too is that there is no policy to increase the monthly Food Stamp allotment so as children grow and their bodies need more food, their parents get more aid. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes its exhaustive information about how much food a five year old female needs as compared to a 15 year old male, none of what we know has made the USDA peg food stamp aid at adequate levels to nourish children. nor has it stopped psychotically cruel welfare administrators like Mary Mayhew of Maine from cutting thousands of children from the welfare program in her state.
The gap between what we know humans need and what the USDA gives in the Food Stamp program leads to really interesting cartwheels on the part of social services agencies, so they can live with knowing that other people’s children are going without food. In 2011, I was at a child welfare training in upstate New York where the trainer told us that there is no data that show that children need three meals a day.
The whole affair went something like this:
The trainer put a hypothetical question up on the screen. It said, you receive a call about a family and respond. The report says that the children in the home are not being fed adequately. Upon investigation, the parent tells you that she doesn’t have enough food in the home, so every day the kids eat breakfast at home but she sends them to their aunt’s house for dinner. On weekends she sends them to their grandmother’s house for dinner and feeds them breakfast at home. Is this adequate?
I raised my hand and said “no.” I said that a caseworker should talk to the parent about ways to provide more food or to get her more food aid if she couldn’t afford enough groceries. The trainer said I was wrong. “No, this is not necessarily inadequate food. There is no evidence that people need three meals a day.”
I said “there is definitely evidence that children need three meals a day,” and the trainer was mistaken. I said that we all eat three meals a day, especially growing children, so to say poor families don’t need to didn’t add up. The trainer repeated that there wasn’t any proof of this. It seemed like common sense and the age old practice of three squares was proof enough.
No one else said anything. It was getting close to 12 o’clock, the time we usually would break for lunch. I had that queasy feeling you get when you want to speak up and you sense you have no allies in the room. I said, “maybe we shouldn’t break for lunch, since people don’t need three meals a day.” The hostility I got was palpable, but maybe I imagined it. None of the workers in training said anything, but I don’t blame them. They certainly weren’t getting the sense that the trainers wanted their opinions. We were a roomful of child welfare workers and no one really wanted us to take on the conflict between what families need to live and what we know they get. “Let’s be back here at 1:30,” the trainer said.
That night, from my hotel room in Albany, I called a colleague at SUNY Oneonta, a professor and nutritionist, who told me, “there is absolutely medical evidence that a human body needs to ingest food at regular intervals amounting to our three meals a day, ESPECIALLY A CHILD. Our custom of having three meals a day comes from our need, not some arbitrary decision.” Back at the training the next day, I told the trainer what the nutritionist had said and gave her the nutritionist’s name. The trainer was surprised that I had pursued it.
We allow children to go without food in the United States. We peg the food aid too low, then ask people to be “aware” of obesity. Not only do we provide inadequate dollars in our Food Stamp program, but every few months a legislator of one state or another suggests spending millions of dollars to drug test his constituents who get Food Stamps, as if being hungry were an effective treatment for addiction.
At the time this “child protection” trainer said this stuff that makes no sense, her state (NY) welfare program provided a paltry monthly benefit of only 46% of a poverty line income; and the best she could do was tell a roomful of child welfare workers that poor kids could just eat less than what she feeds her own children.
Our legislators know children are going hungry. They get letters from well meaning teachers–yes, who already work for too little pay–teachers tell their legislators that someone must do something, because kids are coming to school hungry, and the teachers are helping here and there, storing granola bars and apples to give to poor children, bought out of the teachers’ own inadequate salaries. More stuff that doesn’t make sense, and hasn’t for years.
What if legislators LEGISLATED that the dollar amount of a Food Stamp monthly benefit match the amount the USDA itself says is needed to buy the amount and quality of food that keeps a person alive? Wouldn’t that be sticking up for children’s welfare for real? Instead, we have child welfare trainers saying that poor kids can get by on less food than the rest; and state welfare administrators who say that poor families can get by on less money than others. This is stuff that makes no sense.