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Our view: Nutrition education needs funds

Herald editorial board

Perhaps it's true: You are what you eat.

But new research suggests it's more likely you are what you have learned to eat, and as President Trump considers cuts to food assistance programs, we hope this research resonates.

Not quite a decade ago, the phrase "food deserts" was popularized, and seemed to show that some parts of the country maintained poor dietary habits because of lack of access to certain healthy foods. Thus, a food desert emerged when a geographic area was underserved by grocery stores that provide affordable healthy foods. Without access, the idea was that residents in food deserts are at greater risk for obesity.

But a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates food deserts may not entirely be the problem. Unhealthy eating may be more the result of culture and habits, learned over time in specific geographic regions. Turns out some people just may not be interested in buying healthy foods, and the NBER study indicates those decisions generally are being made by people who earn less, have less education and who are adhering to regional culture.

The study showed that residents of Musselshell County, Mont., buy the least healthy groceries of any county in the United States. And before we cast judging eyes westward, we note it's a problem in North Dakota and Minnesota, too.

In North Dakota, Burleigh, Cass and Grand Forks counties make relatively healthy grocery purchases, according to NBER research, while several counties rank poorly on the study's health index, including Ramsey, Benson, Foster, Stutsman, Rollette, Pierce, Ransom, Montrail, Ward, McLean and Sioux.

In northwest Minnesota, low-ranking counties include Pennington, Clearwater, Mahnomen and Becker. Beltrami County ranks among the country's healthiest.

Nationally, counties in the extreme western portion of the U.S. and those in the Northeast generally make the healthiest grocery purchases, according to the NBER study.

The data came from 12 years of analyzing grocery purchases from 100,000 households across the U.S. The study showed that even if a household had a new grocery store open nearby, or when that household moved to a new region, the same buying habits usually persisted.

In short: Their buying habits may not have much to do with access after all.

Couple this with a 2012 study — by Trust for America's Health — that predicts obesity rates in the U.S. could exceed 44 percent by 2030, costing the country an additional $66 billion per year in medical expenses.

That's why — as President Trump considers a budget for 2019 — the U.S. must resolve to maintain funding for nutrition education programs, such as SNAP-ed, which is run through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If there is any hope of reversing the nation's trend toward obesity, it starts with well-funded and consistent education programs that look to cut through eating decisions related to culture, habits and nutrition indifference.

The president is proposing cutting billions of dollars from SNAP, and we assume education programs therefore are potentially on the block, too.

We hope it doesn't come to that.

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