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Poor families struggle to eat healthier

/ Source: The Associated Press

Laurieann Cossey has always struggled with her weight. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Now, six months pregnant and struggling to get by, the single mother tries to make sure her 1-year-old son gets the fruits and vegetables he needs.

“I worry a lot about my son being obese,” said Cossey, whose mother and grandmother also had diabetes.

Cossey, a 43-year-old community college student, and her son, Andrew, survive on food stamps, trips to the food bank, and a state program for pregnant women and their children that provides essentials such as dairy products, fruit juice and cereal.

She knows they should both be eating more fruits and vegetables. But the foods on the government’s new food pyramid are too expensive. Boxed macaroni and cheese costs less than a dollar to feed the whole family; a fresh chicken breast and steamed vegetables cost about $2.60.

“I’m sure we’d all like to feed our children a nice healthy chicken breast and asparagus,” she said on a visit to a vegetable market. “If we are low on fruits and vegetables, my child gets his first.”

But pasta, canned vegetables and hamburger are much more likely to be on Cossey’s table.

No time to cook

Scientists, doctors and government officials are working on ways to get families like Cossey’s to eat healthier food. Some innovative new programs are making progress, but the results are not coming fast enough as Americans get fatter and fatter.

The poor have more barriers to dealing with obesity, eating healthy and leading an active life, said Dr. Lydia Tinajero-Deck said.

Fast food restaurants are more common in their neighborhoods than fresh produce markets. Many parents, sometimes working two jobs, don’t have the time to cook healthy meals. And fresh food is more costly.

“Energy-dense foods rich in starch, sugar or fat are the cheapest option for the consumer,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. “As long as the healthier lean meats, fish and fresh produce are more expensive, obesity will continue to be a problem for the working poor.”

Dr. David L. Katz of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center advocates vegetable subsidies. He favors the idea of a junk food tax that would use the money to lower the price of vegetables, as well as pay for anti-obesity programs.

Diana Crane, a spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, argues that educated consumers can still find fresh food bargains. “Many types of produce remain very affordable, such as potatoes and many greens, many under $1 per pound,” she said.

Crane said PCC would be happy to see more funding for government programs that get produce to low-income families.

Drewnowski is working with a number of local agencies across Washington state to promote healthy eating and exercise by offering grants for promising projects.

He also argues for research to map the geographical distribution of obesity rates and spoke about obesity by ZIP code at a conference over the summer. An “atlas of obesity” would help policymakers know where to focus their programs, he said.

Some areas are already battling obesity on a geographic basis.

In Moses Lake, a rural town in eastern Washington with a high incidence of poverty, community agencies are working with citizen volunteers to improve walking trails; a community garden is giving residents a place to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Drewnowski says most diet trend and health suggestions are designed for the middle class. A study his group is conducting seeks ways to make healthy eating more affordable.

“We have enough information about which foods are healthy and which are not. But affordability and access — that’s a different story,” he said.