When it comes to what and how we eat in West Virginia, there is a conundrum.
West Virginia is above the national average in food insecurity, which is defined by the USDA as “a household economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
But West Virginia ranks above every other state on the obesity scale. Forty-one percent of West Virginians are considered obese, which the CDC defines as an adult who has a body mass index of 30 or higher.
So, are West Virginians not getting enough to eat because of food insecurity and food deserts, or are we getting too much to eat?
The answer is that maybe both are true.
Many West Virginians are dependent on government assistance for food. One in six West Virginians participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Fifty-eight percent of SNAP participants are in families with children.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average SNAP benefit for fiscal year 2023 in West Virginia was $168 a month or $5.53 per day for each household member. That is not enough to live, but keep in mind the stated goal of SNAP is to “supplement” a family’s grocery budget, not replace it.
No doubt tens of thousands of West Virginia families struggle with their grocery bills. Yet, we have this obesity issue. Dr. Leana Wen, former Baltimore health commissioner and CNN medical analyst, believes the explanation is found in what we eat.
Wen cited a statistic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing that the number two product bought by households using SNAP “was sugar-sweetened beverages, which includes sodas, energy drinks, flavored juice drinks and sweet teas. These beverages account for nearly 10% of purchases, and 20 cents out of every dollar was used to buy sugary drinks and junk foods such as candy, chips and cookies,” she wrote in the Washington Post.
Those items are significant contributors to obesity and subsequent health issues such as diabetes and heart problems. “From a purely public health standpoint, there should be no question that SNAP must be restructured to focus purchases on healthier foods,” Dr. Wen wrote.
However, Wen also acknowledges the objections raised by anti-hunger groups. “Why should low-income individuals face restrictions in what they can buy, while those with means do not?” More simply, do we really want to deny a child a cookie?
No, but West Virginia’s obesity problem is approaching epidemic proportions. West Virginia has the highest rate of adults with diabetes in the country at 16% and is ranked in the top 10 states in heart disease mortality.
Eating healthier would bring down those numbers, but that is easier said than done. Each of us is responsible for our own health and the choices we make. It is natural and convenient to migrate toward what we enjoy the most.
But what and how we eat, whether we pay for it ourselves or use SNAP benefits, has consequences.