Obesity hits lower income households harder


It seems like a paradox that those with the least to spend on food are the ones most likely to be obese, but a new report from Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) bears this conclusion out.

Let’s start with Minnesota’s general obesity standing: the TFAH report concludes that Minnesota is the 32nd most obese state in the nation among adults, at 25.5%, and the 48th most obese among children, at 11.1%. Compared to the rest of the country, Minnesota is doing fine. What’s noteworthy about these numbers is comparing an overweight Minnesota to an overweight nation means that even if we’re doing relatively okay, the numbers aren’t so good in absolute terms. “More than two-thirds of states [including Minnesota] now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent,” TFAH Executive Director Jeff Levi says. “Back in 1991, not that long ago, not a single state had an obesity rate more than 20 percent.”

So what does obesity have to do with poverty? TFAH reports that nationwide, “35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.” A separate study released last month found that in Seattle, obesity is “almost 10 times higher” among low-cost grocery store shoppers than shoppers at more expensive stores.

“Deep down, obesity is really an economic issue,” said Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who led the study. The study finds that “Healthy, low-calorie foods cost more money and take more effort to prepare than processed, high-calorie foods.” This reflects an earlier study of Drewnoski’s which “estimated that a calorie-dense diet cost $3.52 a day compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet.”

So what is Minnesota doing to combat obesity among those in a lower-income bracket?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported June 30 on the USDA’s Food Service Program, which targets high-poverty neighborhoods in an effort to feed children who spend the school year on free or reduced lunch. As the article points out, “summer can be… a season of junk food, irregular meals and empty stomachs.”

Other Minnesota solutions, cited in the TFAW report, include our nutritional standards for school lunches that exceed USDA minimum requirements and our Complete Streets legislation. But TFAW points out that Minnesota does not have nutritional standards for foods sold in schools in vending machines, á la carte lines, or other sources, nor do we have body mass index screening for children and adolescents. While we are taking important steps to combat obesity, Minnesota still has ground to cover.