I learned the economics of nutrition back in college, several decades ago. I never had a financial cushion that would let me relax much.
I did find one place, though, where I could exercise more control over expenses: Food. In lean times — and weren't they all, back then — I could stretch my pennies 'til they screamed by eating very inexpensive packaged foods like dry-noodle soups. That was the mainstay of my diet.
I was not usually hungry. You can fill your stomach pretty cheaply if you're not picky about what you consume or obsessed by whether it's actually providing adequate nourishment. But if you are what you eat, I was on my way to being a malnourished mess. Not underweight, mind you, just malnourished.
Recently, I've been reading articles that give me a flashback to those days of considerable dietary challenge.
This week, my colleague Eric Schulzke tied together the triplet challenges of nutrition when one is on a fixed income: obesity, hunger and malnutrition. Some of the most affordable foods are, from a nutrition standpoint, iffy. They pack calories and can silence the growl of a hungry stomach. But they don't build strong bodies or meet dietary requirements. They don't feed brains and bones and tissue. And they can pack on pounds in a most unhealthy fashion.
Comments on his story, as often happens, turned into a debate about who's worthy to receive help and who is just scamming the system by getting food stamps. I don't think that debate about the "worthy poor" was the point, which really centered on the fact that not all foods are equally valuable and when you're poor, like so many people who are elderly or disabled or children with no power to make the big food decisions, the tendency is to gravitate to inexpensive foods. Plus, they can taste pretty good without offering much.
In the mid-'90s, I was covering the Utah Legislature when in subcommittee a legislator carped loudly that he saw someone buying a particular brand-name cereal with food stamps. It's an expensive cereal, he said. We should make a list of acceptable items. They shouldn't be using taxpayer money on costly cereals.
I would argue that what matters should be nutritional value. Some of the most nutritious foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats, are relatively expensive compared to some of the cheaper, prepackaged and preservative-laden fare. Some of the cheapest cereals he so wanted to see food stamp recipients choose are packed with sugar and offer very little in the way of nutrition. Force feeding impoverished children junk calories doesn't improve their health or minds or even alleviate their hunger for very long.
Lest we get bogged down in an argument about food stamps, my point is not who is paying for the food, but rather the nutritional value of the food that people choose, for various reasons. What keeps people from purchasing the foods that are both delicious and good for them, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins? The fact is, good-quality food is also the most satisfying and filling, so people eat less. A stomach consistently fed empty calories is like a bottomless well; it can't be filled adequately. People who eat smart are less likely to be overweight, with all the health issues that brings. They are more productive and energetic.
The first barrier, I suppose, is education. You have to know the basics of nutrition to make smart food choices. But the second barrier is surely public will. If the goal is to have a nation of healthy, not-obese citizens, one way to achieve that is to make the availability of healthful foods at affordable prices a national priority.
Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.
- My view: MMR vaccine caused my son's autism
- My view: UDOT listened, made a good choice
- Letters: Move to the center
- Richard Davis: Abortion laws should keep up...
- Letters: No welfare, ever
- In our opinion: Utah's caucus system needs...
- In our opinion: Susan Cox Powell's case is...
- Timothy R. Clark: Real job creation requires...
- Letters: No welfare, ever 77
- My view: Why moderates lost the caucus... 33
- Letters: Move to the center 33
- Tolerance and the same-sex marriage debate 32
- Richard Davis: Abortion laws should... 28
- In our opinion: Big screen exploitation... 27
- Robert J. Samuelson: Can Americans stem... 21
- Letters: The buck stops here 19