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It’s cheaper to be… fat

Sebelius: Healthy foods too expensive, lifestyles too sedentary

Mississippi, by any measure, is the poorest state in the U.S. It’s also the fattest state.

Those two dynamics feed off each other, and it’s not hard to discern why.

Healthy food, fruits and vegetables and anything grown organically, is expensive. Food loaded in sodium and saturated fats, food that has been artificially processed or already prepared, is relatively cheap.

So when a family on a strict grocery budget walks into a supermarket, pinching pennies, not shedding pounds, is the top priority.

“I think that’s one of the big challenges,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Often, fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t easy to access. They are often more expensive and that they take some time (to prepare).”

Sebelius was the keynote speaker last Thursday morning at a global obesity summit at the Jackson Convention Complex.

“I think there’s no question that a lot of folks have turned more and more to fast food, processed food, prepared food,” she said. “And not only do they not have time to cook, but don’t really know how to cook any longer.

“It’s the triple whammy,” she continued. “Part of the effort with some of the community projects (included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is looking at what some of the key issues are: subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables, subsidizing local farmers to actually produce more is kind of a win-win situation. You connect local programs to a local market.”

To go with the programs that were a part of the stimulus bill, Congress is considering legislation that would update the financial mechanics of school lunch programs. A bill passed the Senate in August, but has stalled in the House, that would spend $8 billion over 10 years to implement programs that would move school lunches away from their traditional fare of pizza, hamburgers and fried chicken strips, and require them to offer healthier options.

“There’s a lot of effort going on with local chefs and schools,” Sebelius said. “The bill that’s pending right now in Congress recognizes that school lunch programs are operating on the same budget they’ve been operating on for a number of years. Financially, that needs to be updated so there are more resources to actually buy healthier food.”

Making healthier foods more affordable is only one prong in the approach, Sebelius said. Moving food labels to the front of their boxes, making them easier to read, is another.

“Part of it is information. People, I find all over, want to make good (food) choices, but we make it really hard and really complicated for people to figure out what actually is a healthy choice.”

Changing the financial culture of the food industry and changing the social culture of Americans isn’t something that will be done easily, but it must be done nonetheless; otherwise, Sebelius said, the consequences will be dire.

“We have developed a lifestyle that is producing a generation of children – and this is the most alarming statistic of all – whose average life expectancy will be shorter than their parents’,” she said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened in America. That’s not a good place to be if you expect to be competitive in a global marketplace. We have a huge health crisis looming.

“Folks aren’t trying to do things that harm their kids. Often, the choices are very tough and very expensive and not accessible. The way we eat has changed. The amount of exercise people get has changed. Kids today now stay inside and often their thumbs get more exercise than any other part of their body. That doesn’t lend itself very well to a healthy lifestyle. Schools looking at budget cuts over the last decade have cut out physical education. Fast foods have gotten more (financially) accessible.”

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About Clay Chandler

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