Perversities in obesity and hunger prevention

This week featured a number of new articles about the potential adverse consequences of social policies that are intended to improve nutrition outcomes.

We’ve often praised New York City Mayor Michael Bloomsberg for courage in anti-obesity efforts, but this week it was revealed that some strict limits on calorie content in school lunches may have resulted in inadequate nutritional value. Groups like New York’s Coalition Against Hunger have expressed concern that inadequate calorie counts on school lunch trays could exacerbate that one-fourth of New York’s children live in homes that are “food insecure”.

In prior years, epidemiologists dismissed the idea that anti-obesity efforts could stymie progress against hunger, particularly because these were believed to be problems of different socioeconomic classes or communities–hence easy to target. But new data from the U.S. and abroad suggest that a surprising number of households experience both periods of food insecurity and long-term obesity, presumably because cheap calories are sought after by those who can’t afford nutritious calories, and such cheap calories lead to longer-term adiposity (but this mechanism needs to be further detailed; at present, the “dual burden” appears to be an observation alone).

The problem of reducing obesity risks without exacerbating hunger (or vice versa) was detailed in a commentary in this week’s Lancet, but the analysis sometimes presents the problem as merely a continuum from starvation to obesity that needs to be monitored like a thermostat to achieve a perfect “balance”. This may be oversimplifying some marked inequalities in risk among the population based on location, gender, class and social status–even within households–concerning who is likely to get fat and who is likely to get too few calories (youngest child, anyone?). Population averages of body mass index or obesity or anthropometric measures might throw us off about the success of public health efforts to regulate food. Imagine a population where some people are starving and others are fat; that’ll produce a nice perfectly-sized average body-mass index to publicize…

Urban farmers and recurrent food price shocks

Under the premise of gaining greater jobs, housing and food security, migrants from rural zones are entering into urban African cities at a striking rate. In a report this week from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, it was observed that land use as a result of this migration has dramatically curtailed small-scale urban farmers. The Oxfam GROW campaign and others have found these small-scale farmers critical for food security in growing cities. Interestingly, these countries might look to China for solutions, as the city of Beijing appears to get over 50% of its vegetable supply from its own urban farms.

The FAO report comes the same week that the World Bank has announced another spike in world food prices. We analyzed the causes of these spikes in a previous post; while this one appears temporally associated with the drought in the U.S. and Eastern Europe, a new data analysis also revealed that the effects of small supply changes such as those from natural weather events seem to be amplified by the way that commodities markets are now being run (e.g., first Wall Street destabilized the mortgage industry, now they’re on to food…).

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