Hospital teaches low-income families to fight obesity

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When Shaawn-Dai McDowell opens her refrigerator in south Minneapolis, one thing is clear: She eats a lot of greens.

Collard greens, chard, spinach, lettuce. The refrigerator is full of them.

“We gotta have them,” she explained. “We have a lot of kids around here.”

The vegetables are a big change for McDowell, who has lost 100 pounds since 2007, thanks in part to a program at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Today on Morning Edition, we explored what’s known as the hunger-obesity paradox. That’s the counter-intuitive reality that people who struggle to consistently get enough healthy food in America can also be overweight.

For many people across the state, affording nutritious food –and finding the time to cook it– is a challenge.

McDowell is one of those people. She’s is a single mom, raising four kids of her own, plus her nephew. She works 40 hours a week as a personal care attendant, but relies on food stamps to feed her family. She spends mornings at her apartment in south Minneapolis making sure the kids catch their buses in time, evenings helping with math homework.

“Five schools, five friends, five pairs of shoes… you know how stressful that is,” she said. “If you’re stressed out, you’re not sitting there worrying about your eating. That’s the last thing you’re worried about.”

That changed when doctors raised concerns about her weight. They also recommended McDowell enroll her kids in Taking Steps Together, a program designed to help families living with or concerned about childhood obesity. She joined, worried about both herself and her daughters.

The program offered practical help like shopping tips, nutrition education, recipes and exercise advice. It helped McDowell figure out how to stretch her food stamp allotment. Food stamps aren’t designed to cover a family’s whole food budget, but McDowell sees no other choice.

“If I start using the other money for food, there goes the light bill, part of the rent,” she said.

The changes required a good amount of time and energy, but McDowell sees herself as living proof that people can be healthy and fight obesity on limited funds. Still, she admits it’s not easy.

She opens her cupboard and sheepishly eyes a big box of white rice.

“We’re going to switch to brown rice, but this was on sale, and it’s such a large box, I did get it.”

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