Hunger and Obesity in the Rio Grande Valley

It seems impossible: to be hungry and obese at the same time. How can that be?

M. came across a fascinating article in The Washington Post this morning discussing exactly this paradox, and how it is a growing problem in deep South Texas, just across the river from where we live.

In a recent report on poverty in the United States, Brownsville and McAllen, both in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), Texas, were ranked numbers one and three, respectively, as the poorest cities in the country. With median household incomes hovering around $30,000 per year for a family of four, about 40% of RGV residents receive food stamps. Nearly the same percentage are obese. It’s completely counterintuitive, but once you stop to think about it, it makes sense: cheap food is not healthful, while healthful food is expensive. Why does it have to be this way?

I see this reality every time I visit the grocery story. We buy our food almost exclusively at H-E-B in Brownsville, for a number of reasons. The grocery stores in Matamoros are in an area that have seen exchanges of gunfire in broad daylight, and the selection is often better in Brownsville, with many organic and locally produced products available. When we go to H-E-B, we stock up on things like fresh vegetables and fruit, and grass-fed beef and organic chicken. They come at a price, but we figure, what better investment to make than in our health?

I have received comments on my grocery cart on a number of occasions: Wow, you have a healthy diet. Or, Gosh, that’s a lot of vegetables! Sometimes, the cashiers ask me what a certain vegetable is, because they don’t recognize it. I feel self-conscious about it, but when I look around at my fellow shoppers’ carts, it becomes clear. I see baskets full of food in bags and boxes: chips, sugary cereals, cookies, crackers, white bread, bottles of pop, and packages of pork sausage and ribs stacked on top of one another. Those that do have produce usually contain things like apples, potatoes, and avocados, as well as tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeños – ingredients for making salsa.

One time, as I was leaving the produce section, a man in a motorized wheelchair cart stopped me and asked if the avocados were good that day. I told him that I hadn’t looked at them specifically, but that I’d noticed that they were on sale. He replied that he was trying to change his diet, so he could walk rather than use the wheelchair, and “get rid of this thing,” as he nodded toward his expansive belly. I told him that avocados still contain a good amount of fat, and he agreed. Not wanting to sound too judgy, I quickly added that the fat in avocados is the healthy, monounsaturated kind. He stared at me with a blank look. I’m not sure if he knew what I meant.

And therein lies the problem: a severe lack of education about food- not only what’s good and what’s bad, but where to find it, and the idea that eating healthfully doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive. For example, a cup of black beans is much more filling than a cup of French fries, and costs a lot less. Perhaps it’s easy for me to say- I have access to healthful food and the resources (not only money, but time and equipment) with which to purchase and cook it. However, that, too, is a product of education. I have my mom to thank for that. I can recall very, very few occasions growing up on which we went out to eat, and when it did happen, it was rarely fast food. A Happy Meal was a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of treat.

Mom almost always made a home-cooked meal. On the daily menu were always salad and milk, usually in addition to another vegetable, a protein, and some rice or noodles. Granted, Mom also always had a full-time job and is extremely educated- a nurse, in fact. However, she was also a single mom… which means she was probably about as tired as they come at the end of long day, yet she always made the time to cook for us and make us healthful lunches for school.

When I read articles like the one from the Post, it makes me realize evermore how fortunate I am that Mom was so insistent on us eating our veggies starting at such young ages. It may not have always been fun at the time, but Mom’s insistence on healthy eating habits shaped the way I think about and approach food as an adult. I try to make sure at least 50% of my grocery cart contains fresh produce, and we cook nearly everything that we eat. Don’t get me wrong- we definitely enjoy our guilty pleasures when it comes to food, but we try to have them in moderation. We have our weaknesses (mine is sugar), and though it’s tough not to give into them sometimes, a trip to H-E-B is a harsh reminder of why moderation is so important.

It’s an injustice, that healthful eating habits are so closely tied to income and socioeconomic status. I wish there was a way to make that different. Is it as simple as providing education? What’s a mom to do when, like the family featured in the article, her kids refuse to eat vegetables? Does the “they’ll eventually get so hungry that they’ll eat their broccoli” strategy work? I am inclined to think not. It’s easy to see why an exhausted mom would prefer to stop at Whataburger to pick up some fast food rather than fight with her kids to eat a salad. It becomes a question of how to break that cycle.

An ongoing debate, also discussed in the article, is whether the government should regulate what one can purchase using food stamps. For example, should so-called energy drinks, which are more or less sugar water, be allowable purchases on the federal dime, knowing that they can lead to increased risk of diabetes?  Should the government be allowed to tell people receiving public assistance what they can and cannot eat? What do you think?

Read the article here:

Thank you for reading!

3 thoughts on “Hunger and Obesity in the Rio Grande Valley

  1. My mom always cooked cheap, healthy dinners too, no matter how worn out she was from working, since we could not afford to eat out, and my dad's heart problems led him to adopt a low-fat diet. I have eaten enough beans-and-rice and spaghetti in my childhood to last a lifetime! But we always green vegetables (fresh, since canned and frozen were too expensive) and a salad. But, having a dad who would rail on about trans-fats back before it was cool, and a mom who always cooked fabulous meals has done nothing to keep me from eating like a pig as soon as I was free to procure my own meals. Much like so many other vices that the poor disproportionately enjoy, like smoking, drinking, and gambling, these folks know they are fat and unhealthy. They know that vegetables are good and potato chips are bad. But they have shitty lives and use these unhealthy habits as mini-vacations. A puff here, a drink there, a lottery ticket over here, some pork rinds to cap it off, are little relievers from the stress of being dirt effing poor. “Yeah my life sucks, but I can just get hammered, watch TV, eat pizza, and forget for a while.”

    Eating healthily is a chore. You have plan your meals and shopping trips. You have to prepare everything from scratch, which is not quick work. And you have to do this every day for the rest of your miserable life.

    If I were making policy recommendations I would end food stamps altogether, as well as all the agriculture subsidies and tariffs that are keeping food so expensive, while enriching large agribusinesses (Car-Gill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Fanjul Corp. among others). So basically, try to kill the Farm Bill next time it's back up for discussion.


  2. I can completely relate. While I was on a shoestring budget, eating healthy was sometimes just simply out of the question. I felt I needed bulk and while juggling school full-time and several part-time jobs, I lacked the time to figure out what healthy foods worked. I can understand the lack of education component with healthy eating. It's easier to open a bag of chips, than to wash, slice an apple, at least it seems easier. I find though, once you start eating healthy and consistently eat healthy, your body craves the healthy foods. I cannot stomach half the stuff I used to sustain myself on anymore because my body just says, no. Thanks for your insight. Much appreciated reading.


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