The new face of poverty is fat
Twenty years ago, I parked at a supermarket, near where a poor family had just parked. I knew they were poor, because they looked like poor folks are supposed to look: Their clothes were worn (but mended and clean). Their car was an aging sedan. They were recycling a trunkful of aluminum cans. As I locked my car, they took the handful of change they got for the cans, and headed in ahead of me. There were three of them--man, woman, child--and all three were skinny. It's unusual to see that now. The new face of poverty is fat.
Poor people being skinny was already getting to be unusual twenty years ago, or I probably wouldn't remember it so vividly. Now, the fat person going to the food bank is a cliche.
I've thought about it a lot in the years since then. How can poor people be fat?
I've read a lot about the topic, and there are a lot of answers. Some focus on the food (healthy food is expensive, empty calories are cheap). More focus on the people (poor people are stupid, poor people are ignorant about good nutrition, poor people are lazy, poor people are too busy working two jobs to get enough exercise, poor people are too tired after working two jobs to get enough exercise, poor people don't have access to fitness centers, poor people don't have access to kitchens, poor neighborhoods have lots of fast-food restaurants and few farmers markets).
I think the answer, though, comes down to hunger.
Hunger is a powerful force--powerful enough to make a question like "If a hungry man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family, is it really theft?" a genuine ethical conundrum. Hungry people will do almost anything to get food--and for people with hungry children, you can delete the "almost."
The feeling of "hunger" is constructed in your brain based on many different inputs. A lot of research has gone into understanding what makes people feel hunger. (Particularly from drug companies who could make a fortune from a diet drug that worked, but also other kinds of scientists.) It turns out, though, that hunger is deeply wired into the human brain--it doesn't just depend on getting enough calories. Among other things, it depends on getting all the important nutrients, although it's not as simple as just that either.
If you're poor and hungry, you buy the cheapest calories you can find. If you eat that stuff until you no longer feel hungry, you're eating too many calories. That's why poor people are fat.
It's especially sad, because it actually is possible to eat a good, healthy diet pretty cheaply. Unfortunately, it's not cheap and easy--it's really quite complex. You have to know about nutrition. You have to have the use of a kitchen, and time to cook. You have to have access to fresh vegetables.
There are a number of good articles on the topic here on Wise Bread, starting with Sarah's recent Healthy eating--it'll cost you, Andrea's Why is it so expensive to be healthy, and Tannaz's Save the world and save a dime: eat locally. Be sure to look at some of the great articles Myscha has written on cheap, healthy eating. I've written two: Eating locally on a budget and Healthy recipes with cost data.
The way to get cheap and healthy together is to eat real food without worrying about whether it's organic or local or not. You can get better vegis at the farmers market or from community supported agriculture--but whatever vegis are cheap in the produce department at the grocery store will still be better than some packaged food product full of partially hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup.
It's the real food that's the key. Ninety percent of what you bring home from the grocery store shouldn't have an ingredients list--it should be ingredients. Food has gotten more expensive, but rice and beans are still cheap. Only in America do the truly poor eat meat twice a day--but even meat is still cheap, if you buy what's on sale. Again, it won't be as good or as healthy as meat from animals that were locally raised in a humane fashion, but it will be both healthier and cheaper than eating at a fast-food restaurant.
Once you're eating real food, trying to source more of it locally will get you better food--and food that is sometimes cheaper and often almost as cheap. Check out the Eat Local Challenge for lots of information about eating local food cheaply.
Of course, the people reading this know all that. I don't know how to get the word out to the people who don't. But I do know that you can be hungry and fat. If you're poor in today's world, it's very nearly automatic.