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Food Fight – Urgent Need for Resources to Combat Obesity

By Carol Duh-Leong

For medical students, the obesity epidemic is palpable around every corner during our training. In lecture printouts, we highlight and circle the epidemiological state map of obese America that ominously darkens every year as the rates of obesity increase. Our professors hand us cardiovascular drug lists that run three pages front and back. We shudder at the prospect of having to memorize them, but at the same time, we realize that this intimidating list is only a basic introduction to obesity and how it will percolate into every single day of our medical careers.

As a medical student in clinic, I am often assigned the most inglorious tasks in the room. When an obese woman comes in for a pap smear, oftentimes her thighs will still touch even with her feet hiked apart in stirrups. Since we are unable to access her cervix, my job is to splay her legs open with my hands. The already vulnerable task of getting a pap smear has become that much more delicate, and the medical community fails to offer our patients proper sized equipment because we did not predict how the obesity epidemic would affect the basic size of people. Obesity is an urgent, national emergency not only because it is unhealthy but also because it is embarrassing for those who suffer from it whether it be during a gynecological procedure, taking a blood pressure or palpating a spleen. Across the board, obesity affects our ability to deliver medical care.

The House is on the verge of passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a sweeping child-nutrition bill. Deficit-neutral, the bill provides $4.5 billion to school lunch and other federal child-nutrition programs. Unfortunately, there is always a catch. The White House and its allies are currently entangled in battle as the House considers whether or not to divert funds from future food stamp benefits in order to support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Advocates for the poor and anti-hunger groups expressed their alarm to House members last Thursday and more than 100 House Democrats have signed a letter to Speaker Pelosi opposing the use of food stamp money.           The fight to fund the healthier children is everywhere. I am part of the leadership of the Give Tennessee Kids a Chance anti-childhood obesity campaign, a group of medical students organizing for sound policy to combat childhood obesity. Last year, our political target was not food stamp funding but rather the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Our campaign focused on the research showing that overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.

The significance of the current White House conflict between food stamps and childhood obesity is not necessarily to pick one side or the other. More than 41 million people nationwide receive food stamps and nearly half of these recipients are children; we have a moral imperative to maintain our food stamp program. Rather, the significance of this political controversy is the experience of being deep within the conflict: we recognize that choosing between these two critical health care measures is an extremely painful experience. We have to feed our country. The urgent question is how.

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