Industrial-scale farming and food processing are greater factors in rising obesity numbers in Connecticut and worldwide than individual behavior, according to scientists.
This complex food system feeds directly into greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated climate change. Last year the journal The Lancet identified a global “syndemic” linking climate change to obesity and poor nutrition, referencing dozens of studies. Earlier, in 2017, the journal Public Health reported “significant and new insight about the causal link between obesity and environmental emissions.”
In Connecticut, 27 percent of all adults, almost 12 percent of children and 14 percent of toddlers (ages 2-4) are obese. In 1990, the rate for adults was 10 percent, Connecticut Data Haven reported in its 2019 Community Health Well-Being Survey.
Obesity affects people of color at higher rates: more than 30 percent of Hispanic adults and more than 35 percent of Black adults are obese, compared with 25 percent to 29 percent of white residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many factors have contributed to current obesity levels: lack of access to healthful food, socioeconomic factors, a car-oriented culture and food marketing, said Marlene Schwartz, director of the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. She said the center studies “how we can use policy to change the food environment. You can’t expect personal responsibility and willpower to be enough to overcome all the factors in the environment.”
Former Rudd Center researcher Rebecca Boehm led a study in 2018 that found 68 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food production came from industrial farming and manufacturing, 30 percent of which was from animals.
“A majority of the emissions are coming from the production phase,” said Boehm, who now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Boehm’s research showed that “consumption activities of all kinds create greenhouse gas emissions, and food is one of those integral parts of our lives that’s a consumption activity. It’s less obvious than the emissions coming out of your car. It’s a little hard to think about and conceptualize because the food system is so complex.”
In Connecticut, small farms have been working for many years to help those who live in cities and some rural areas far from markets get affordable, fresh produce.
Teri Smith of Smith’s Acres in East Lyme said she started selling produce in downtown New London about 35 years ago and expanded to Stamford, Bridgeport and a dozen more farmers markets. She said part of the work was talking to customers about how to use what she was selling. “I was amazed at the mothers and the children who would come in and ask questions about vegetables: ‘Why is this cucumber curly? The cucumbers at the grocery store are straight. Why are the beans different sizes? What can I do with Brussels sprouts?’”
She added, “That was the best part of doing the markets in a place like New London or Stamford, talking to the people. You can buy $10 worth of apples and go home and make applesauce and freeze it for your baby. How about this butternut squash, how about cooking and mashing them up and saving them and you have baby food for a year for your baby?”
Staying healthy has become even more challenging during the pandemic. Just getting out, running errands and getting exercise has gotten more complicated or even impossible for many people, especially those who live in food deserts. In cities, food deserts are where markets are more than a mile away and in rural areas where they are 10 or more miles away. Connecticut’s food deserts are mostly in its cities.
Thirteen years ago, to help those who live in food deserts, Connecticut farmers markets in cities began doubling coupons from federal assistance programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These programs are designed to help people living at 130 percent of the poverty level and below afford produce and other healthful food. Of Connecticut children between 2 and 4 years old whose families participate in WIC, 14.4 percent fall in the obese range.