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Can homework reverse the obesity epidemic?

This link between poverty and processed foods is illustrated in a new book, "Pressure Sugar: Why Home Cooking does not solve our problems and what we can do about it", written by three sociologists studying food, families and inequality. The authors – Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton and Sinikka Elliott – studied 168 poor and middle-class families in North Carolina, a state where one in three adults is obese and one in 10 has diabetes. The researchers followed the families for up to five years and profiled some of them in depth and spent hundreds of hours visiting their homes and observing them when they were shopping, cooking and going about their lives.

Their research challenges the idea, repeated by many nutrition experts, that Americans can regain their health and reverse the obesity epidemic if they were just scraping processed foods, coming back to the kitchen and making healthy meals from the beginning. While it will work for some people, Dr. Bowen and her colleagues draw that it is not a realistic solution for families who have limited time and money. It is not necessarily a correct idea: National surveys show that 48 percent of Americans cook dinner six or seven nights a week and another 44 percent of people cook two to five nights a week. The data show that low-income families spend more cooking than richer families, and they consume less fast food than middle-class households.

But the researchers found that many families faced a number of barriers to healthy food. Some of the families they studied lived in food markets, far from a decent grocery store, and had to spend hours on the bus to buy food or ask friends and relatives for a ride. Many would run out of money at the end of the month and look for ways to stretch over what little food they had. Some did not have reliable ovens and refrigerators, or they lacked pots and pans and other basic utensils. Others turned to their local food stores, which provide highly processed foods that are stable but high in sodium, sugar and other additives, such as breakfast cereals, pastas, cakes, packaged snacks and canned meats and soups.

With so many obstacles in the way, the researchers found that working class families would often be away from foods that cost more, pamper themselves quickly, or require a lot of preparation, and instead turn to things they could cook, store for a long time and extend in many meals.

"If you are strapped for money and run out of food every month, as many families did in our study, the cheapest you can buy is the frame, hot dog and boxed macaroni and cheese, says Dr. Bowen, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. "We asked everyone in our study what would you buy if you had more money to spend on food, and the most common answer was:" Fresh fruit for our children. ""

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