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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Unhealthy Food Choices: Privilege or Right?

This photo was featured on the L.A. Times opinion blog referenced below. I'm using it here to illustrate a point.
Today's rant is brought to you courtesy of an L.A. Times opinion blog post that one of my friends shared today on Facebook. For those of you short on time or interest, I'll spare you the details and get to the point: A Florida senator wrote a bill to restrict what recipients of federal aid can buy with that money. By federal aid, the senator means food stamps or what we call "EBT" where I live. The bill would prevent the use of EBT in restaurants or on most foods not found in the meat, dairy and produce aisles. The Times' editorial board has called the bill socialistic. Some Times readers commented that recipients of food stamps are eating on the taxpayers' dime and therefore, don't have the luxury of free will when it comes to what to buy.

The Times hasn't asked what I think, but I have my own blog so I get to share my opinion anyway.
I have never set foot in the state of Florida so I can't speak to its system. But I am a native of California's Central Valley and know a thing or do about how public assistance works here.The food-stamp program has changed a lot over the last few years. Marketing efforts have given it a new image. It's now officially called CalFresh, which complements CalWorks, the new name for cash aid. If you visit the CalFresh website, you'll see the state wants recipients to make good food choices and strives to educate them on how to stretch those free food dollars the furthest. In addition to being able to use your EBT card at Jack in the Box, you can also use it to buy cheap fresh fruits and vegetables at our local farmers' markets. Welfare has come a long way, baby!

Despite all this education and glitzy marketing, obesity still reigns supreme. Local university researchers are amazed at the number of children with obesity-related co-morbidities such as high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Sadly, most of those obese children come from homes with CalFresh assistance. And their obesity is evidence that healthy eating is not the norm. This proves that education (the Times' suggested solution) alone is not the answer. Knowing what to eat and feed to your family and actually taking the time to do it are two different things.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say forget choice and dictate every singe morsel purchased with public funds, if for no other reason than to serve the taxpayers' best interests. Obesity is expensive. Obese children become obese teens and later, morbidly obese adults. Obesity-related illnesses are expensive to manage and treat. But that reaction comes from the perspective of my inner 200-pound child, who still remembers the emotional and physical challenges of growing up poor and obese.

As much as I want to save our future generation from the curse of obesity, I know that children are at the mercy of the adults in their lives. American adults will stop at nothing to get what they want when they want it. I can remember as a child, seeing people in the grocery store parking lot trade food stamps for cigarettes. If this Florida bill were to gain steam and become law, food-stamp recipients wouldn't instantly become Jamie Oliver's newest converts. They would just find a way to trade those EBT dollars for the unpermitted foods they want. Instead of trading food stamps for cigarettes, people would start trading them for jelly doughnuts and potato chips.

So, if I'm saying education isn't the answer, and mandating the purchase of healthy foods isn't the answer, then what IS the answer? I wish I knew. If I did, I could use my public relations background to market it and pat myself on the back all the way to the bank.

Nutrition education and activism must continue, and each of us must lead by example. When we step up to the plate to make better choices for ourselves, we serve as an example to those around us. So the solution lies within each of us and what we buy at the store for our household, because that dictates the food served in our home and to our household guests.

Dinner time at your house may be the first time your child's favorite playmate ever lays eyes on roasted asparagus or green beans that weren't victimized by the canning process. That playmate might bravely try that asparagus, like it and go home and tell his family about it. And who knows? Maybe asparagus will makes its way to their dinner table the following week. You never know. So the next time you have company over for dinner -- whether adult friends or kid friends -- consider making dinner instead of ordering takeout, and watch for the ripple effect.

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