While discussing his latest book in an EconTalk podcast, Tyler Cowen brought up something I’ve generally believed: the problem with food for the American poor is not that they are starving, it’s that they’re fat. We can see this from the gross proliferation of fast food amongst the American poor. After all, they are eating this unhealthy food because it’s what they can afford. Obviously there are a non-insignificant number of people in America that are malnourished or literally starve, but amazingly obesity seems to be wrecking a historic amount of havoc on the American poor.

With my classroom currently focusing on daily nutrition, the students have been keeping food logs. Although the data keeping is definitely not scientific nor close to being reliable, I have noticed two trends that describe at least 95% of the diets: 1) the caloric intake is not NEARLY close to what they should be having and 2) the food they are having is as nutritious as eating a pair of socks.

For the first issue, it’d be easy to explain it through a lack of financial means to eat. But this explanation isn’t convincing. Most the students at my school qualify for Federally subsidized free breakfasts and lunches due to low income. They are all in the cafeteria when breakfast is served. And although the length of their lunch period is sub-optimal, they still are there and have time to eat more than they actually do. Often times, the students say they’re not hungry. Or maybe they didn’t like the food the cafeteria was serving. But with the help of choosemyplate.gov and its diet tracking technology, I observed that a lot of these kids are getting under 1,000 calories in a given day. That puts them on a level doctors classify as starving. Remember, the food is available to them. It’s being served in the cafeteria they’re sitting in. This lack of caloric intake probably explains a lot of their common exhaustion and grumpiness.

When they do eat, it’s crap. More common than a child bring a pencil to class is a child munching on multiple bags of Takis. For those not familiar with them, take my word that they are absurdly unhealthy and synthetic-tasting. They also like to drink one sometimes two energy drinks in a day. Again, no nutritional value.

Obviously, my experience with an unscientific food log of sixth graders is not a conclusively large sample space. But I have a feeling this is a pattern amongst low-income children: an unfortunate combination of low caloric intake and snack food grossly lacking nutrition.

So what are the possible policy solutions? Even neglecting the public choice issues and feasibility of successful implementation, I really don’t know what to do. Force kids to eat the breakfast and lunch they are fully provided and paid for? Educate them about nutritious options (an easy solution that is obviously easier said than done)? (Relatively) healthy food is being offered to them two meals a day and they are turning it down. We can’t make them eat that food. They’re eating crap, if anything, once they get home for dinner, and that definitely doesn’t seem like an easy place for policy to affect. I really can’t think of anything. I’d like to see when their eating habits change. Is this an adolescent thing where they’re worried about body image? Once they start actually working do they eat more calories out of necessity?

The poor in America are obese (just like a lot of middle-income and wealthy people). I don’t even feel the need to find a link to prove that. But I’ve been struck this last week by the real issue for these kids’ diets being eating enough food. Watching Super Size Me almost seems less relevant than watching some sort of documentary about the dangers of malnourishment.

Now that the life-or-death STAAR test is done in the class I work in, less academic matters have taken over the classroom. Right now, we are focusing on nutrition. In addition to keeping a food log, we are watching Super Size Me. While the merits of the movie are a matter for a later debate, watching the movie renewed an apparent contradiction I’ve always noticed with increasing awareness about healthy eating: we are simultaneously telling people (children, mostly) 1) Americans are unhealthy, we need to be more conscious about what we eat, we need to exercise, and 2) Don’t obsess about trying to look like the air-brushed models in those magazines, we are all beautiful, don’t worry too much about body image. I think both points are valid: people should be more concerned about their physical health – which includes nutrition as well as being active by means of walking more or just outright exercise. People also should stop worrying about the two pounds of arguably excess fat on their bodies, the extra hair on whatever, or how they wish they were .00001 shades less pale than they are. I suppose girls tend to be more bombarded with pressure about body image (though don’t think for a second males don’t worry about their appearance) so I don’t totally understand the pressure for a more-perfect body.

But teaching these two lessons walk a fine line. By teaching kids to be more conscious about nutrition, we are implicitly telling them that they don’t look good. In Super Size Me, and most campaigns to raise awareness about healthy eating, the most common image I see is the shock value of showing a morbidly obese person. It makes sense. After all, there is something very convincing about the image of someone that is clearly unhealthy and unattractive in a physical sense. Especially for kids, the idea of being that fat and being prey to the judgmental peers of adolescence is enough to eat fruits and veggies and exercise. Or is it?

Unfortunately what I’m about to say is currently politically incorrect: we should be shamed by people who are five hundred pounds and the image should give us motivation to be healthy. For some reason, as Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine points out in Super Size Me, obese people can’t yet be criticized in society like we criticize chain smokers or drug addicts. Smoking crack or cigarettes to the point of self-deprecation both produce repulsive images of things we don’t want to be. Lack of will power aside, the vast majority of the population has the ability and means to not be a chain smoker, meth addict, or five hundred pounds.

But pushing this “shame” too much then goes into the other murky waters: you don’t want to be like this; these people are bad; these people are so bad that you need to be super skinny. But then kids get so skinny they don’t eat enough and develop eating disorders. Or they just simply starve themselves (the food logs I see of my students have a disturbingly low amount of calories…that will be tackled in part II of this post).

So pushing the idea that you don’t want to look like these fat people has the negative unintended consequence of people overcompensating and being too skinny, by certainly unhealthy means. And then pushing the idea too far that you shouldn’t be concerned at all about body image gives people the impression that it’s ok to totally neglect your health and it’s fine to have the consequences of bad nutrition and lack of exercise.

I don’t have an answer for how exactly to put across these two messages without getting the negative side-effects of both. My main prescription would be to encourage a more active life-style with exercise. Exercise, after all, increases hunger for healthy foods and just improves everything in your physical health.

A French study has challenged the findings of a well-publicized British report that said organic food offers no conclusive health benefits. Maybe organic food is healthier for you, maybe it isn’t. I’d just regard it as inconclusive at best.