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.