Poverty "Causes" Obesity

Proponents of Western-style economies often point to the obesity of the poor in modern nations as evidence that, obviously, these poor are not really "poor" in terms of historical standards. There is a quite fatuous way of dismissing that idea based on claiming that poverty "causes" obesity. Well, first of all, even if the claim were true, that still would be a lot better than the previous situation of poverty causing starvation. And secondly, the claim is silly in and of itself.

Over in a letter at Salon.com, I found someone making a typical version of this case:

"Obesity is not a measure of prosperity for the poor. It is a consequence of economic inequality.

"Go down to the ghetto. Try to find fresh food. You'll find convenience stores where you can buy Cheetos and beer. But what if you want fresh chicken, whole wheat flour or broccoli? How do you buy those if you live in the inner city?"

I live in Brooklyn, and there is not a single neighborhood I've ever been in, no matter how poor, where you can't get "broccoli" within 4 or 5 blocks. To the extent that junk food dominates in those areas, it is because of demand. If the poor really were craving steamed vegetables every day instead of Cheetos, wouldn't the vegetable sellers would be working to accommodate them?

Secondly, notice his fetishizing of "fresh." Sure, fresh broccoli is somewhat better for you than frozen broccoli. But both are a lot better for you than Cheetos. And frozen broccoli is even more widely available in poor neighborhoods than fresh -- around here, even little delis are likely to have a small frozen foods section. This fellow has to stress "fresh" because otherwise his case would be way less plausible than it already is.

Look, every poor neighborhood here has at least one Chinese take-out, everyone of which is going to sell both steamed broccoli and deep-fried chicken puffs. Why don't the people claiming "lack of access" as the cause of obesity among the poor go survey those places and ask which dish sells better? The people making such claims are living in a fantasy world where the poor habitually would be dining on tofu and sprouts if only someone -- God knows whom! -- wasn't conspiring to keep those things from their waiting lips. To the extent that poverty correlates to obesity, it is a matter of the preferences of the poor.

Finally we get this gem of wisdom: "One good thing they're doing in LA is installing small public mini-gyms featuring cheap, durable versions of equipment found in gyms the poor are too poor to join."

Riiiight. Because there's no way anyone could be fit without "fitness equipment." It's not like they could go walk to the friggin' supermarket where all the friggin' broccoli is being hidden, or anything like that!


  1. I talked about the same exact thing when NYC "came out" with the "plan" for Green Carts program, which is a fancy way of them claiming credit for slightly deregulating the street vendor market.


  2. every time I drive through West Philly on one of the major arteries, I usually notice one or two box trucks with their rear doors open, selling fruits and veggies. I hope no one ever "plans" to change this, or requires them to get a permit, or to submit to inspections. what the ghetto's of Philly could really use is a Walmart or three.

    people see what they want to see. it's not that hard to see what that letter writer is focused on.

  3. I recall back in the 1980s, when I lived in the hood, there was a Chinese restaurant on the corner of Myrtle and Washington.

    One day I noted two signs in the window, and wished I had taken a picture. One said, "No Food Stamp(sic)" and the other was a picture of a lost cat and instructions on how to contact the owner. I'm sure getting hungry just thinking about it... the stringiest beef and broccoli I ever had... and my wife, she cries and throws her food away after I kept "meowing" between bites... ah poverty!

    But I digress... Sure, they could have steamed vegetables at that Chinese joint, and they probably did from time to time.

    Their best selling item was fried chicken. The chicken tasted kind of gamey, and would carry deep fried feathers. Just like the locals, I ordered it often, at least I knew what I was eating.

    We had an A&P over there on Myrtle. I was a starving student, and since I was a student I didn't qualify for food stamps. I used to envy people with food stamps. They'd pay for a steak, get change, and pay for the next steak, get change, and eventually use the accumulated change for beer or salty snacks.

  4. Yeah, woody, the 80s were OK, but the 60s were even better: I lived almost exclusively on tofu and Japanese canned whale meat.

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