How Can Obesity and Hunger Both Be on the Rise in America?

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You’d think that the presence of one would somehow cancel out the other. But that’s now how it works today. The odd symbiosis of obesity and hunger is addressed through the story of a Pennsylvania family that makes ends meet through a combination of food stamps, shopping around at multiple stores for bargains, visits to the local food pantry and soup kitchen, and $18,000 per year in income.

NPR tells the Williamson family’s story in two parts. Part I introduces the family—mom and dad, three kids, and two adult relatives who are homeless and spend most of their time at the Williamsons’ apartment—and follows mom Connie around as she hits the food pantry and multiple grocery stores trying to get the most food out of very limited resources:

After about six hours, with a break for lunch, she’s done. She has a trunk full of food — which should last about two weeks — and $103 in food stamps for the rest of the month. Connie says if food gets scarce, she or her husband will skip meals before the kids do.

Part II deals not with the family’s ongoing struggle to get food, but with the way they—and so many families—struggle to put food on the table that’s good for them. No one in the family is starving. In fact, the mom is described as “heavy-set” and the 8-year-old boy Alex, who eats a blue ice pop for breakfast in the opening anecdote, is called “chubby.” Why aren’t they eating healthier foods?

“You can get leaner cuts of meat, but then they’re more expensive,” [Connie] says. “You can get fresh fruit every couple of days and blow half of your budget on fresh fruits and vegetables in a week’s time, easy.”

The Williamsons live well below the poverty line. And in the family’s struggle to obtain enough food, nutrition sometimes takes a back seat to necessity. There’s often a tug of war between the best intentions and some not-so-good eating.

At least at first glance, it is easier, quicker, and cheaper to throw together a meal with high-calorie processed foods. If you’ve got kids, one reason that it’s easier to go this route is that there will probably be less complaining:

When asked, Alex says he worries about food all the time, and that he’s always hungry. But later, he admits he has enough to eat. It’s just not always what he wants. He says he especially doesn’t like it when his mother makes Brussels sprouts for dinner.

Ah, of course. I can’t help anyone convince a child that Brussels sprouts taste good. But I can provide a link to a big round-up of money-saving advice that includes 50 healthy foods for under $1 a pound.