Society’s Choice: Childhood Obesity as an Issue of Civil Rights

What if I told you there was an epidemic killing off the equivalent of the population of Pittsburgh every year?  This epidemic affects poor and minority communities at a disproportionate rate, particularly children.  The odd fact about this epidemic is that, unlike other diseases, it is entirely preventable.  Yet the government has taken relatively little action in addressing it even as myriad Americans suffer physically and financially crippling injuries or death as a direct result of the condition.  The epidemic I am describing is the obesity epidemic and it is time that our society took substantive action in addressing it.  The scourge of childhood obesity is particularly egregious because it is both the most devastating form of obesity and the most preventable.   It represents a matter of civil rights that our society ought address.

Childhood obesity is probably not the first scourge in society that comes to mind under the banner of civil rights.  One could make the argument that although childhood obesity vastly increases the chances of an early death, this alone does not make it any more of a civil rights issue than any other condition.  Yet the unique effects and disparate impact of obesity render it a civil rights issue.  The medical consequences of childhood obesity are severe and can present a devastating handicap for children throughout their lives.  It often results in depression, stigma, and outright discrimination.  Additionally, the spread of childhood obesity is largely tied to class, as those children living in lower income communities are far more likely to suffer from obesity. Unfortunately, since children in minority communities are three times more likely to grow up in poverty, they are likely to grow up in these food deserts.  As a result, they disproportionately bear the costs of childhood obesity.

Some may counter that obesity is a choice and not a disease.  While the science appears to be turning soundly against this superficial viewpoint, this frame could not possibly apply to children anyway.  Children do not choose where they are born or what resources they have access to.  They are dependent on their parents to provide them with food and guidance as to what constitutes good nutrition.  In impoverished areas in which parents often have to work several jobs just to make ends meet, there is little time to cook nutritious meals and far too little money to afford nutritious foods.  As a result of this situation, parents turn to fast food or whatever they can find in the local supermarket (which is often not all that nutritious due to the food desert effect).  Meanwhile, it is incredibly difficult to escape from childhood obesity.  Children that become obese are likely to remain obese throughout the rest of their lives.  Hence, when these children suffer from obesity as a result of these conditions, it is far from a choice.  Rather, they are bound by the shackles of poverty into a peril they neither created nor deserve.   Hence, childhood obesity is a civil rights issue because of the harms it wreaks upon blameless children and because of its disparate impact upon low income and minority communities.

Fortunately, the government can make great strides in ending this epidemic before it devours another generation.  A good place to start would be school lunches.  One of the main places where children growing up in poverty should be able to count on attaining  a nutritional meal is at school.  In fact, many children are dependent upon these meals for their nutritional wellbeing.  Schools that offer more nutritional lunches have healthier students.  Too many schools, however, offer subpar nutritional options to students and thus deprive them of a what could be a significant source of nutrition.  By improving the quality of school lunches, the government could help curb the spread of childhood obesity.  Additionally, the provision of breakfasts at schools should be expanded for the same reason – to allow children another nutritional meal at a low price.

At a more systemic level, however, the problem in these communities is that there is a critical lack of nutritional options available at an affordable price.  This paucity could be solved via government subsidies.  Indeed, if the government were to expand programs like WIC and SNAP rather than cut them in the name of blind partisanship, it would go a long way.  Current data shows that these programs already play an important part in helping keep the childhood obesity epidemic from expanding even further.  Additionally, the government could subsidize supermarkets that sell more nutritional options in order to give them a greater incentive to move into minority communities.  Just as irrigation can turn a desert into a green oasis, a few new affordable supermarkets could help food deserts discover a new nutritional bounty.

These are only a few of the possible options that should be exercised in respect to the childhood obesity epidemic.  It is imperative, however, that society recognize this as a civil rights issue of the present day.  The topic of childhood obesity is often written off as either a moral failing on the part of the children or their parents when it is in fact a moral failing on the part of society.  In declining to make sure that these children have access to adequate nutrition, society condemns a whole swath of poor children to a vast array of problems that increases the difficulty of an already treacherous pathway in society.  In the end, however, those that ignore or stigmatize childhood obesity are right about one thing – it is all about choice.  Society should choose to help make sure that all of its children have the opportunity to be healthy, not just those that can afford the price of adequate nutrition.

Written by

Alex is a 2L at HLS. He is particularly interested in criminal justice and its effect upon civil liberties. He worked at Greater Boston Legal Services in the summer of 2014 and worked at a plaintiff's side employment firm during the fall of 2014. Prior to law school he interned at the Rhode Island Public Defender and received a B.A. in history and politics from Brandeis University.

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