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COLUMN

The poor aren't helpless to help themselves

Society should promote healthy choices, not pretend they don't exist

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 - 7:22 am

The late comedian Sam Kinison once offered this bit of advice to famine-ravaged people starving in barren third-world deserts:

Move to where the food is.

Some laughed; others perhaps saw little humor in his apparent indifference to suffering. But give Kinison this much: at least he recognized that people in need have not only the ability but the duty to alter the unfavorable conditions in which they find themselves.

Compassion is a wonderful thing – until it causes us to view the poor as somehow incapable of doing even basic things for themselves. For all its good intentions, last week's talk of alleged “food deserts” in Fort Wayne may have only infantilized the very people it was intended to help.

According to Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan, 23.5 million Americans – including residents of parts of eight ZIP codes in Fort Wayne – live more than a mile from a supermarket offering a healthy choice of foods.

But does that really explain or excuse the unhealthy diets that contribute to obesity a host of other medical problems of people living near the poverty level?

The development of more community gardens – last week's prescription – would be a wonderful thing, but is unlikely to be accomplished on the scale needed to provide thousands of people access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And even if it was, the real problem would remain: You can lead people to Brussels sprouts, but you can't make them eat them.

Even granting that lack of a personal vehicle makes a trip to the supermarket more difficult than it is for most people, stores in all parts of town are still available via public transportation, carpooling, the help of friends and neighbors, by bicycle or on foot. There are also many farmers markets and food banks in town that offer healthy foods. In other words, people who really want healthy food can usually find it, even in the “desert.”

McMahan suggested as much when she noted that low-income people often choose inexpensive foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, salt and other unhealthy stuff. But I do a lot of shopping, and fresh produce doesn't really cost more than pre-packaged food.

So why are so many people eating so much junk?

Because they have chosen to do so, that's why. And until we accept that reality – and the fact that adults are capable of making better choices -- all the feel-good programs in the world won't really change things.

As is usually the case, education is the key. Those who truly want to help the poor will do more than offer them sustenance for today, but show them how to become healthy and independent tomorrow. Proper nutrition is only one of the choices that promote a healthy, more-prosperous lifestyle. Completing school and deferring parenthood until employment and marriage will also minimize the risk of prolonged poverty – and the impact of living in a “food desert.”

The supposedly compassionate welfare system also exacerbates the problem by allowing food stamps to be redeemed on unhealthy foods.

On the same day the “food desert” story appeared in The News-Sentinel, another story focused on McDonald's Corp., whose restaurants are often blamed for promoting obesity through unhealthy dining.

CEO Don Thompson said he still eats his own food “every single day” but has also lost 20 pounds in the past year.

How'd he do it? Through a less-sedentary lifestyle.

Each of us, rich or poor, has the power to make choices that profoundly shape our lives. Poverty limits those choices, but does not eliminate them and in fact makes responsible decisions all the more essential. It demeans the poor to suggest otherwise.

Kinison said it funnier, I know.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.