Happy Meal bans, vending machine labels miss a point when it comes to the obesity crisis

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Most people would describe me as a healthy eater. I carry a cart of veggies home from the farmer’s market each week, and there isn’t a day when you can’t find an apple (or an apple core) in my purse.

So you might think that congressional moves like putting calorie labels on vending machine or banning Happy Meals would garner a smile from a healthy foodie like me, but you’d be wrong–because these new laws miss the real target of America’s obesity problem: poverty and the lack of access to real food.

Obesity has everything to do with race and poverty in this nation. Nationally, the obesity rate for black women–33 percent–is almost twice that of white women’s 18 percent. But when a Johns Hopkins University study looked closer at where people lived and how much they made, the racial gap disappeared. In poor communities in Baltimore, obesity rates were high, no matter the color of your skin. What mattered instead was living in a place that offered tons of gut-busting food and almost nothing nutritional.

San Francisco’s Happy Meal ban and the new vending machine regulations seem to have their heart in the right place. They seek to take the shine off of the artery clogging meals that our nation loves so much. But just like the neighborhoods where obesity reigns, they don’t offer anything in its place. Maybe the potato chips do have more calories and fat than the pretzels, but an apple isn’t going to fall out of that machine, no matter how many quarters you dump in.

I see it every week in the kids I volunteer with in Altgeld Gardens. They eat food that turns my stomach. The big treat is to go to the corner store and have them slice open a bag of Doritos and slather them in hot nacho cheese. What else is there to eat for the same price? Fritos, cheetos, pork rinds, chips, candy or soda. When I went in and asked for a bottle of water, people stared.

Sometimes, I get hungry on Saturday mornings, but there is nothing I can eat in Altgeld Gardens. But my students don’t have the luxury of being the health snob that I am. They’re hungry–and processed, packaged food is all that’s on the menu.

Photo credit: Phil Whitehouse

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