- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Researcher and occasional gadfly Douglas J. Besharov wants to put Uncle Sam’s food programs on a diet.

America’s struggle with obesity is so immense that even the poor can’t escape it — as many as 70 percent of poor adults are overweight, said Mr. Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

But despite recipients’ ballooning waistlines, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption, he told a Department of Health and Human Services welfare-reform conference yesterday.

There’s no need to cut these important programs, he said. “But there’s a need to declare victory in the 40-year battle against malnutrition … and reorient” the programs so they stop contributing to obesity in poor families.

Federal high-fat culprits include school nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which are up for renewal this year, said Mr. Besharov. Among his recommendations:

• Offer WIC recipients more cooking lessons and less of WIC’s “Third World care package” of cheese, milk, eggs, cereal, juice and peanut butter.

• Reduce federal calorie requirements in school meals, as most children have plenty of other food sources and don’t need to get 58 percent of their daily calories at school.

“I want people to worry about growing overweight and obesity,” said Mr. Besharov. “And the government, I think, is part of the problem.”

Government officials share Mr. Besharov’s alarm about America’s growing weight problem, but unlike Mr. Besharov, they don’t see a connection between the $35 billion a year the federal government spends on low-income nutrition programs and the rise in poor people who are overweight.

“First and foremost, we don’t have any data or any information that would lead us to believe that that statement is true,” Eric M. Bost, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in a recent interview.

“Provide us with some research or some data that supports that, because we haven’t seen it.”

Second, not everyone who is eligible for federal food benefits takes them: Only 59 percent of low-income people use food stamps and less than 5 percent of families with children who could be enrolled in four major nutrition programs do so. “So the idea that our programs are contributing to the rate of obesity … doesn’t quite add up,” said Mr. Bost.

In truth, he adds, “all of us are getting a little chubby” and low-income families are just fighting the same fight as everybody else. That is why the USDA and the Bush administration are strongly encouraging all Americans to get more exercise and make healthy choices about food and portion sizes, he said.

At the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a leading anti-hunger organization, Lynn Parker says she hasn’t seen any research suggesting U.S. nutrition programs are causing obesity in recipients. She has seen “modernization” in the programs, though.

In the 1990s, for instance, policy-makers successfully worked to reduce fat and salt in school lunches. “Today, you see a reduction in fat, although not to the level we would like, but it certainly has gone down,” said Ms. Parker, who directs FRAC’s child-nutrition policy.

Current calorie requirements — 25 percent of Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) calories in school breakfasts and 33 percent of RDA calories in school lunches — “make a lot of sense,” she said, “because that’s when the kids are the most active, that’s when they are learning.”

“We’re not talking about enormous quantities of food in school lunches, so I don’t see the rationale for cutting back [the calories],” she said, noting that many schools already experiment with produce-laden salad bars, potato bars and fresh fruit and vegetable kiosks.

As for WIC’s menu, it is designed to be “supplemental” and “meet the nutritional needs of low-income pregnant women, infants and children,” said Ms. Parker. WIC already offers low-fat and skim milk and low-fat cheese, and the fruit juice is there for vitamin C. Eggs and peanut butter are there for protein and iron.

The Institute of Medicine is conducting a review of WIC’s menu for the USDA, she said, “so actually what Mr. Besharov is asking for is already in process.”

Another debatable assertion in Mr. Besharov’s argument is that hunger in America “has largely disappeared.”

The feisty scholar claims firsthand knowledge of the issue: As a civil rights worker in 1967, he said, “I literally carried ill and malnourished black children into hospitals.” He has since spent years studying, writing and advising policy-makers about poverty, welfare and child abuse.

There are still “pockets of real hunger in America,” Mr. Besharov told The Washington Times, but they are almost always linked to illness, addiction, dysfunctional lifestyles or abuse.

“All this is no secret to senior policy-makers and food-advocacy groups,” he said. The reason it’s not discussed publicly is because that’s not the message the special interests, including farm, dairy and food-processing companies, want to send.

Instead, the message more to the special interests’ liking is Parade magazine’s recent cover story, which said there was a “silent famine in America” and urged Americans to feed the needy by “taking part in the Great American Bake Sale.”

USDA data doesn’t support the idea of extreme scarcity of food in this country. Instead it shows that in 2001, there were 3.5 million households (3.3 percent of all households) in which someone went hungry at least once during the past year because of lack of money. This included 211,000 households in which a child went hungry at least once.

Ms. Parker at FRAC agrees that the severe malnutrition of 1960s America is pretty much gone. But “I don’t want to quibble about words” like famine or hunger, she said.

“Hunger is the word people use [because] it’s our common experience. … When you don’t have the food when you need it, you feel hungry. So when we talk about people who are without the food they need, we talk about hunger,” she said.

Meanwhile, bad news about obesity keeps rolling in.

Obese and overweight people add $93 billion a year in medical costs, said a study released this month by RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medicare, the federal health program for seniors, and Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, pay for almost half these costs.

Medicaid recipients have the highest instance of obesity — 34 percent, compared to a national average of 24 percent, the study said.

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