Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a study last week that reported on American girth – the obesity epidemic – which is nowhere heftier than in the South.
“The obesity epidemic continues to be most dramatic in the South, which includes nine of the 10 states with the highest adult obesity rates,” read the report. “States in the Northeast and West tend to have lower rates. Mississippi maintained the highest adult obesity rate for the seventh year in a row, and Colorado has the lowest obesity rate and is the only state with a rate under 20 percent.”

“Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30 percent,” the report said. “Four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent.”

Mississippi’s rate was 34.4 percent, followed by Alabama (32.3 percent), West Virginia (32.2 percent), Tennessee (31.9 percent), Louisiana (31.6 percent), Kentucky (31.5 percent), Oklahoma (31.4 percent), South Carolina (30.9 percent), Arkansas (30.6 percent) and Michigan (30.5 percent).

Obesity isn’t a laughing matter, an issue to be set aside with dismissive excuses that some folk like to eat fried food.

Obesity is a serious issue associated with a number of health problems such as high blood pressure, cancers and diabetes – problems that drain away quality life and cost the nation $150 billion each year.

While the increase in overall obesity is disconcerting, the rate among minorities is alarming.

Obesity rates for adult African-Americans exceeded 40 percent in 15 states and 35 percent in 35 states. Adult Latinos had rates in four states above 35 percent.

“Nearly 33 percent of adults who did not graduate high school are obese, compared with 21.5 percent of those who graduated from college or technical college,” read the report. “More than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year were obese, compared with 24.6 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 per year.”

What is clear is that the highest rates of obesity are among racial and ethnic minorities, those with less income and those with less education.

Obesity and low income are bound together in one of the world’s wealthiest and most religious nations.

Given these facts, the faith community ought to think about obesity as a social justice issue, not just as a privatized spiritual matter or a lack of personal self-control.

Houses of faith have a moral responsibility to speak to the unbridled market forces that profit from bad food. Faith houses must advocate for government programs that advance good health.

Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have made recommendations to policymakers that will reverse the obesity crisis.

These include government funding for public education programs, restoration of cuts made in 2011 to nutritional child-care programs, and regulations related to public school vending machines – to list only a few.

Offering a moral critique of a social wrong and advocating for social correction is an overdue step in a needed, long walk toward good health.

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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