Monday, July 19, 2010

Is obesity a social justice issue?

Thanks to a certain conservative commentator, "social-justice" has become a code word for communism and Nazism (prompting heavy backlash from almost all corners), but the National Association of Social Workers still defines it as "the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities."

I attended "SuperSize Me: The Social Context of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic" last month at the Children's Museum of Boston; it was presented by Dr. Elizabeth Goodman and Dr. Beth DeFrino, who discussed the ways that our social and biological environments affect our health. Though the majority of weight-loss and anti-obesity initiatives emphasize exercise and healthy eating, the seminar made me wonder if childhood obesity is more than just a matter of too much junk food and TV time. Is it -- along with crime, education, and access to medical care -- a social justice issue as well?
"Property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, not to mention the indirect product costs of regulations and taxes imposed on the food producers have driven the cost of food and the cost of living sky high," says Connie Kennedy, an educator in Alabama who blogs at The Business of Family. "These are social issues, and have nothing to do with whether the kids are begging for blue juice."

A study published in March in Health Affairs found that children from poor families are twice as likely to be obese as children from affluent families -- 45 percent compared to 22 percent. And minority children are at greater risk for obesity as well: 41 percent of black and hispanic children are obese, compared to 27 percent of white non-hispanic children. Socio-economic factors like housing condition also have an effect: 36 percent of kids who live in decaying neighborhoods are likely to be obese, whereas 31 percent of those whose homes are less run down are likely to be obese.

Eric Tipler, writing at the Huffington Post in March, explained how his experience teaching in inner-city schools helped make up his mind about obesity being a social justice issue. "It disproportionately affects the poor and minorities. It's also one of those rare cases where the major domestic challenges of our time -- education, health care, poverty -- intersect, and where small changes can have a big impact."

With cash-strapped schools cutting recess and sports programs in order to make ends meet, children are spending more sedintary time at their desks and less time being physically active. And since school with low test scores are penalized (thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind), the kids who are most at risk for obesity are more likely not to get the activity they desperately need.

It's also contributing to the country's already serious childhood obesity problem, and the rising obesity rate has other consequences as well: Overweight or obese children are 59 percent more likely to miss more than two weeks of school than kids who are not overweight, and 32 percent more likely to have to repeat a grade, another study shows.

A 2007 study indicated that parents of overweight or obese children are often in denial about their children's true weight, possibly because they think that it'll change as the child grows older, according to Dr. Matthew M. Davis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan who led the study.

Among parents with an obese, or extremely overweight, child age 6 to 11, Davis's study found that 43 percent said their child was "about the right weight." More than a third (37 percent) responded that their child was "slightly overweight," and 13 percent said "very overweight." Other parents insisted that their overweight child was actually "slightly underweight." As children got older, though -- age 12 to 17 -- parents seemed more willing to admit that their children had a problem, with 31 percent responding that their child was "very overweight."

As I've mentioned before, the people who are least likely to need intervention are often the ones who are most likely to pay attention to educational campaigns, so more information alone isn't going to do the trick. But when social inequities are part of the equation, the problem becomes much more difficult to solve. Having to work to put food on the table trumps the hallowed family dinner hour, and if the only stores you have access to don't carry fresh produce -- or if it's prohibitively expensive -- you can't tout "eat leafy greens" as the solution.

Do you think obesity is a social justice issue? At what point does the health of a generation impact the abilities of a nation?


Kelly said...

obesity is a social issue. Have you seen a dollar menu at whole foods?

Unknown said...

The government could virtually wipe out obesity easily, but they don't have the guts to do it. Most children who are obese are from low-income households, thus receiving food stamps. Why not make those food stamps valid only for healthy foods that meet certain nutritional criteria? Because civil rights group will come say "They should have the right to buy junk food with public money." We already say you can't buy alcohol with food stamps, why can't we take it a step further? And if they're so desperately missing the junk food they used to buy, they can make a decision to use some of their other support money to purchase their choice of foods.

Anonymous said...

@Lori, there would be limited benefits to implementing additional limitations on what you can buy with food stamps because the bigger issue is access to healthy, affordable foods. Take a trip to a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood (if you can find something other than bodega) and look at the vegetable selection. Not only will you find that it's overpriced, but I can almost guarantee you that the quality will put you off so much that you won't want to eat it. Not only that, but the stores all close at 9pm. I work a 9-5 job and don't have children or other family commitments, and yet I still have a hard time getting there before it closes. My way around this has been to order through Fresh Direct, but that's because I have access to it: a computer, internet connection, a checking account/credit card, and more importantly, I don't use food stamps (FD does not accept them).

Cristy said...

both. parents could be more strict on what their children eat. food is is not only low income children that are obese. i think families should be able to purchase any food whether it is their money or government money. nobody tells us the kind of food we have to buy with our money. it depends on how much food you consume. you have no right to tell people what food they can purchase. food is not the only factor to obesity. there are many diseases that make people overweight.