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Healthy Choices
Healthy food is a luxury for the poor, says Gena Lewis, and taxpayer subsidies are part of the problem.

By Gena Lewis

We know that obesity is an epidemic in America.

But what may not be as obvious is that obesity and hunger are linked. The same overweight child I see in my pediatric practice at Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland is often hungry too.

Recently, a pediatrician in training came to me troubled by a mother and three children, all overweight. In taking their history, it was clear that the family diet had lots of junk food and few fruits and vegetables.

The new doctor was frustrated that this mother wasn't creating a healthier environment for her kids. But when we dug deeper, the mother told us that when their food stamps ran out, the family would go up to a week without meals. In fact, they hadn't eaten that day.

We gave them two bags of groceries. The mother burst into tears. The kids examined the bag to see what was for dinner. And the new doctor learned that healthy food is a luxury.

Combating hunger isn't just about calories -- it's about enabling access to nutritious food. With three hungry children and no money, would you buy cheap, calorie-dense fast-food meals to keep little tummies full? Or broccoli that won't even make one meal?

What angers me is that taxpayer dollars underwrite that bad choice. Federal farm policy lavishly subsidizes high-fructose corn syrup and other elements of highly processed foods while categorizing things like broccoli and apples as "specialty crops" that receive pitifully small help, if any. Currently, the farm bill that has passed the Senate makes a dent in this inequity, but an inadequate one. The House bill is even worse when it comes to funding nutrition programs like food stamps. Billions more in cuts there are likely while crop subsidies survive thanks to powerful lobbyists.

With much less each month in food help, that hungry, obese family is likely to keep buying cheap, filling and unhealthy food. And those kids are on a path to hypertension, diabetes and other obesity-related diseases.

My hope is that our leaders will understand that they are responsible for the obesity epidemic and that they can fix it, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Dr. Gena Lewis.

Gena Lewis is a pediatrician at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.

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