by Jeff Nield, Vancouver, British Columbia on 06.10.11
Image: Holmes County convenience store smorgasbord by Dave Anderson/Oxford American
Holmes County, Mississippi has the unenviable distinction of being both America's poorest and most obese county. Kids as young as three are diagnosed with high blood pressure, school buses are overcrowded because only two students can fit in the seat although they're made to seat three, and 40% of the population is obese. (Obesity is generally defined as the point when excess weight starts having serious negative effects on health.) It also just so happens that about 50% of the residents live in poverty.
Southword: Living Large in Mississippi
NPR's Debbie Elliot talks about what hit her hardest while visiting Holmes County.
The connection between poverty and obesity. Holmes is both the most obese and the poorest county in Mississippi. One young mother who uses food stamps to feed her two children told me she has no choice but to pass up the produce aisle to stretch her food dollars. In one grocery store I visited, sugary drinks were right in the produce case, and were cheaper than buying a bunch of bananas that were starting to turn black.
Filmmaker Dave Anderson from Oxford American, underscores the importance of access to food for healthy eating.
I learned the term "food desert." Yes, one S. According to the Center For Disease Control: "Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet."
I think the key terms there are access and affordable. So, oddly, the Mississippi Delta, a lush agricultural region, is in fact still a food desert. I didn't realize there was so much disparity in quality and selection of fresh fruits and vegetables offered to the public. Usually you just couldn't find them. But when you could find them in a local convenience store, the selection and quality of produce was pretty sorry. It turned out that people who really want quality fresh produce must drive 30 to 45 minutes to find a good grocery store.
Obesity is not just a class problem, but poor people in America that lack access to quality food will inevitably turn to high calorie processed foods that will stretch their food dollar. Add a sedentary lifestyle to the mix and soon you have a nation riddled with obesity.