Editorials, Opinion

The obesity problem

Why distance and poverty have made us overweight

U.S. News recently released its rankings for “most obese” state in America, based on CDC data. Can you guess which state was No. 1?  

Yep — it’s West Virginia, with a 40.7% obesity rate.  

We weren’t surprised to find our state has a significantly overweight population. It’s not that West Virginians don’t understand good nutrition or refuse to exercise. The root causes of obesity here are lack of access and affordability. 

In 2018, the last year for which we were able to find data, around 25,000 West Virginians lived in food deserts, which the Food Empowerment Project defines as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.”  

Rather than having grocery stores like Giant Eagle or even big-box all-purpose stores like Walmart, food deserts tend to have convenience stores only, like Dollar Generals or the kinds attached to gas stations. And such stores rarely, if ever, have fresh meat, fruits or vegetables. What they do have are the canned, boxed and bagged highly processed foods — chips, candy, soups, frozen dinners, hot dogs, etc. — that contribute to obesity. 

And “convenient traveling distance” doesn’t just mean a short drive — it also means within walking distance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a “low access tract” (its term for a food desert) as more than one mile in an urban area and more than 10 miles in a rural area to the “nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.”  

In this way, distance makes a double contribution to the obesity epidemic: Where people in other states can get their exercise by walking to the corner grocery or the farmers market, most West Virginians have no choice but to drive. And for those without reliable transportation, this makes accessing healthy foods even more difficult. 

There’s another thing food deserts and obesity have in common: They proliferate in low-income areas. 

Eating healthy is expensive. Period. Heavily processed foods, on the other hand, last longer and you can buy more of it for less. When you’re on a tight budget with a family to feed, two boxes of stovetop mac-and-cheese give you more bang for your buck than a head of lettuce or bag of apples. 

What West Virginia needs is a holistic approach that can address multiple intersecting factors at once, and that’s not going to be a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. In some areas, it may look like teaching people how to grow community or individual gardens and possibly providing the seeds. In others, it may look like more (even traveling) farmers markets and produce stands. It may look like a free weekend van to the next largest city to shop at a real grocery store. It may look like promoting small farms to provide for local consumption rather than regional exporting. Or encouraging fresh-food-oriented businesses with tax incentives.  

West Virginia’s obesity epidemic won’t be tamed with nutritional education or exercise guidelines. Obesity will go down when healthy food becomes more accessible and more affordable.