Why Is Childhood Obesity a Red State/Blue State Issue?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 23, 2011

I’m still catching up from TLT’s spring break and wanted to share (for those who missed it) this piece by Charles Blow which appeared two weeks ago in the Sunday New York Times. Blow examined the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll which asked, “Should the government have a significant role in reducing childhood obesity?”  Nearly 60% of respondents said yes, which represents a 20% increase since the same question was asked in 2005.

Blow discusses the various reasons for the uptick, but also notes how the numbers break down on racial and political lines:

.  .  . only 49 percent of whites, 45 percent of the elderly, 41 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of those who agree with the Tea Party movement also agreed with the majority on this question. “Their Nanny State is trying to control our Kitchens!”

Why should this be, especially when obesity among whites is highest in the nation in Southern red states like West Virginia, Missisippi and Alabama?  Shouldn’t these states, presumably hard hit by obesity-related costs, care more about obesity prevention than any others?

Blow thinks it’s not the anti-obesity message but the identity of the messenger at work — in this case, President and First Lady Obama, both of whom have made childhood obesity a public cause.  Says Blow:

True to form, anything the Obamas support, no matter how innocuous or admirable, the right reflexively rejects, sometimes in malicious tones.

Blow’s piece echos my own speculation here a few months ago.  In describing a right wing video that attacked Ms. Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, I posited that the anti-obesity movement has become a right wing target for a variety of reasons, including having the Obamas attached to it:

My sense is that we’ve hit upon a perfect storm of sorts:  the financial interests of Big Agriculture and Big Food are part if it, surely, but we also have a society in which, as Marion Nestle noted,  [j]unk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations.”  In addition, we have a President who has been easily portrayed by his opponents as a champion of Big Government, determined to trample on individual freedoms (as well as pedantic and elitist), while Michelle Obama is portrayed as harsh and militant.

Add to all of that the basic human impulse to eat stuff that’s not great for us (and to resent people who tell us to do otherwise) and it’s no wonder that (as the Washington Post piece put it) “‘Don’t let them take away your Big Mac!’ becomes a rallying cry.”

For more thoughts on this issue, be sure to also check out Marion Nestle’s recent post on Blow’s piece.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Bri March 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm

This is really timely, actually — I just finished reading an article on Yahoo about Michelle Obama and her advice to parents about keeping tabs on their kids’ BMIs. While I personally may not agree with the idea that BMI is an adequate indicator of diet or health, I was actually shocked and sickened by the comments on the article. They were so charged with hatred, so racially incendiary, so misogynistic, and so politically motivated that I am actually drafting a letter to the editors to demand better oversight of the civility of commenting on the site. This IS, sadly, a political and racial issue. Very few of the people most loudly declaring their point of view in this fight actually care much for the health of their neighbors, or even their own well-being — not as much as they care about making a vitriolic and ideological point.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Wow. Well said, Bri!

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Al April 10, 2011 at 6:11 am

Amen! Very well stated. I couldn’t agree more. There are many people who take great delight in disparaging President and Mrs. Obama, even when it comes to an important issue like this. The childhood obesity rate has skyrocketed since I was a youngster and if it isn’t addressed, it’s only going to get worse. I’m not a fan of Mike Huckabee, but I respect him for acknowledging that Sarah Palin was off base on this issue.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 11, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thanks, Al, for coming by TLT to comment on this post. And I felt the same way about Huckabee — in today’s ridiculous political climate, it takes guts to support something so obviously beneficial if it’s coming from the other party!

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Virginia January 3, 2013 at 5:40 am

i know someone that is very obese. She wehigs 3 times than her normal weight at 5’5. She is in her early 30 s, she can’t walk around good and hates being obese. Since she is obese, she has high blood pressure, diabetes, and has major back problems. She can’t work because of her back. Between her medications and her get around chair, costs add up fast. Medical bills cost add up more than some one could imagine. She doesn’t really care because she doesn’t think that obesity is a disease or a health problem, because so many people are overweight.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 4, 2013 at 7:41 am

Virginia: I’m sorry to hear about your friend. Thank you for sharing here.

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Renee March 23, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I thought the comments on Marion Nestle’s blog were quite interesting too –with a couple of notable exceptions, I’d like to have those people living in my community.

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Kelly Lester March 23, 2011 at 4:52 pm

This is such a disturbing topic from so many angles. But as usual, if we are going to wait for or rely on the government to fix our childhood obesity issues, our kids will have kids of their own before much has changed. I know I’m probably a terribly naive dreamer of sorts, but I’m just hoping that we would all come together to support programs and education that lead to change, instead of yelling at those who are simply trying to help. Can’t we stop the nastiness and blame and just do the right thing? Even if it’s something as small as offering to bring fruit for school snacks and talking to the kids about why they aren’t getting potato chips. Collectively, if we all did one extra positive thing in a day, maybe the world would actually shift just a bit. In the right direction :)

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 24, 2011 at 8:05 am

Kelly: So well said. Do you remember those moms in Britain stuffing junk food through the schoolyard fence when the schools tried to ban it on campus? I just don’t get it. You can’t wait til 3pm to give your kid Cheetos, if that’s so important to you? Sigh.

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Eon March 24, 2011 at 7:55 am

Whats shameful about this political actions is that people are not thinking about the long-term affects of obesity. Unhealthy children become unhealthy adults. But everything seems to become a blue or red thing these days. I wonder is opponents think about the health-care cost of junk-food.

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal March 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

I am always surprised when people link nanny state to a child’s health. A child can not feed himself. He can not shop at the grocery store or prepare foods for himself. He relies on his parents, his school and his community to do those things for him.

When parents and the community are ignorant of nutrition as so many people are, the child’s health will suffer, precisely because our government allows food manufacturers to produce, market and sell entirely too much food that harms human health.

I also don’t want the government to take away big macs. But i do want the government to make a choice to care for the health of our country by saying, hey John Q Public, go ahead and eat fast food, packaged food, soda and other low-fat food like factory made substances with no real ingredients as 95% of your diet over 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 decades. Go ahead, but if you do you WILL get sick. You will have IBS, or cancer, become overweight, get diabetes, have high blood pressure, develop kidney stones, etc. That’s not nanny state. That’s disclosure. Same thing that we do with alcohol and cigarettes.

Kelly – unfortunately we do have to rely on the govt to make changes. communities absolutely can plant gardens, teach kids about real food and offer more real food at school, home, and social gatherings. BUT. In my experience, kids who like junky stuff, will NOT eat real food when junk is available.

However, when you remove the junk, kids, even those who eat a lot of packaged food, WILL eat real food. When you add fresh fruits and vegetables to the school lunch line, a few kids eat them. Most kids don’t take them, and half that do toss them in the trash uneaten.

We saw that at Sherwood E when we did a taste-off competition. Only thing on the menu was fresh fruits and vege. No chips, no juice, no pretzels, no hotdogs. 82% of all students tried every thing offered. http://tinyurl.com/4ugmwg8

When you teach kids why they should have them, a few more kids eat them. As long as those fruits and vegetables are served along side chocolate milk and other carnival foods, kids will mostly not take advantage of any menu reform that is happening. We saw that when we looked at the increase of fruits and vegetables consumed at Sherwood E after six months of nutrition education for all 400 of our students. Fruit and Veg consumption increased, but we only gained a few new students eating fruits ( 25/335) and vegetables (52/335 for raw broccoli) http://tinyurl.com/4j8pemg

Hmmm, when students only have access to real food most will eat it. When it is served along side carnival food most will not participate.

Until the govt changes the way school lunches are funded and reimbursed, the nutrition requirements for those lunches and gets rid of the hundreds of obstacles school food service groups have to actually delivering real food to students, not much will change in the area of school food.

Unless every student receives nutrition education, any menu reform that does occur will have low acceptability. Meaning it will be served, offered and either A) not taken from the line or B) tossed in the trash.

How do we get nutrition education to all students without asking the govt to make it so?

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal March 24, 2011 at 9:20 am

this is a subject that has been baffling me for a while. after I commented here, I wrote a post about it on Food with Kid Appeal. check it out if you want more of my thoughts on Why I Don’t Think School Food Reform = Nanny State

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal March 24, 2011 at 9:21 am

this is a subject that has been baffling me for a while. after I commented here, I wrote a post about it on Food with Kid Appeal. check it out if you want more of my thoughts on Why I Don’t Think School Food Reform = Nanny State http://tinyurl.com/4v4zkkr

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Alina Joy March 27, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I found you through EasyLunchBoxes.com
What a great post! We live near Dallas, Texas (notice – it’s a red state! High obesity levels here!) Last month the Texas Department of Health Services published a study that showed that the 5 leading causes of death by disease in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are: Heart Disease, Cancer, Strokes, Chronic Respiratory Disease and Diabetes. Several of these diseases are diet related. My husband and I are opening a small family farm and we have been meeting so many people! People just don’t realize how unhealthy the food they are eating really is! Food labels are misleading and difficult to read. Something might say “low fat” on the package, but if you do the math, the percentage of fat from the total calories is high. It’s getting too complicated for the average person to want to bother with. No wonder people say, “I just want to eat. Leave me alone!” There is definitely a need for education on so many levels! We are going to do our part by offering free cooking classes in our home. (We are looking into the legal requirements now.) I’m also posting health related tips and recipes on our farm blog. I’m hoping it makes a difference.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 28, 2011 at 6:26 am

Alina – What an exciting venture! Wishing you all the best on your new farm, and keep us posted here. – Bettina

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Alina Joy March 28, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Thank you! We are just getting started… But you can follow us on Facebook “Good Old Days Farm” or on our blog: http://GoodOldDaysFarm.blogspot.com We post a lot about farm life and also healthy recipes! =) I enjoyed your article and plan to come back to check your blog again. =)

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