Master’s Project

New York’s Fight Against Obesity:

One Woman’s Challenge

Yocasta Espinal, a 30-year-old mother, recalls wistfully how she looked when she was 15.

“You ought to have seen me. I was a model,” says Espinal as she sat in her South Bronx living room, bouncing her one-year-old baby girl, Violetta, on her lap.

The dismayed laughter in her voice indicates that she doesn’t expect anyone to believe the body of this admittedly overweight young woman was once svelte. High school pictures display a size five figure that developed into a size 14 or “sometimes 16.”

At 5’2, the estimated weight for a woman with her frame is 118-136 pounds. Espinal said she estimates that she is 50 to 60 pounds overweight.

“And I don’t like it,” she said.

Like millions of Americans, Espinal wants to lose weight. The logical step would be to start eating right and join a gym. But it’s not that simple. Even the true heartfelt desire of this young mother is not enough to start her on the weight loss path. And she isn’t just a young woman lamenting about her size as she eats a cupcake.

Espinal is the sole breadwinner for her small family and the money she makes isn’t enough to provide for all the food they need. For her, a healthy lifestyle isn’t a simple matter; rather it’s a matter of convenience and what she can afford. Her Dominican culture also has something to do with it.

But policy makers, health care providers and non-profit organizations are working diligently to target people like Espinal and her daughter.

In New York, Espinal is the object of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s self-proclaimed health campaign. Since becoming mayor almost 10 years ago, Bloomberg has declared war on obesity through many proposals, some of which are now law. Restaurants must now display the calories of its menus. And sugary and fat-laden foods are no longer staples of school lunches. Despite these and many other efforts, the New York State Department of Health claims that 54 percent of New York’s eight million people fall into the overweight or obese categories.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the New York statistics are part of the 74 percent of all adults in the United States who are considered overweight or obese. The diseases that often come with obesity, like diabetes, hypertension and sleep apnea, have caused a recent push by policy makers on both the local and national levels to create legislation that will affect how Americans take care of their health.

Espinal’s struggle with her weight is not unlike the struggle of most Americans.

“I would like to look, I don’t know, pretty or healthy,” she said, “because when I turn 60 or 70, nothing in my body is going to function the same.”

But getting people to change their eating habits is not as easy as writing some laws.

Policy makers began to shift resources towards obesity nearly 15 years ago as they saw the rate of obesity increase drastically, according to Roberta Friedman, the director of Public Policy at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

“People were beginning to notice visually that there are more overweight people in the world but also statistically,” Friedman said, recalling that in 1960 only 46 percent of Americans were considered obese or overweight.

Today, Friedman says that getting Americans to shed pounds is not only a matter of quality of life, but also an economic one.

In July 2010 the CDC claimed that the United States spent $147 billion per year in medical costs directly related to obesity, in both private and public funds. Freidman says the goal of policy makers is not to create exercise programs but to “make environmental change.”

“We’re trying to make it so the healthiest behavior is the easiest to practice,” she said. “Obesity is a problem that wasn’t going away. It’s got multiple prongs to it and it has an impact on so many aspects of many people’s lives,”

Fed up with their body image, weight loss hopefuls make changes. They start cutting foods out of their diet and eating fresh goods. People inclined towards exercise take up running or yoga. They join a YMCA or a local gym.

But healthy eating requires knowledge and access. Exercise requires time and motivation. They both require willpower. And they both require money.

Most American’s don’t have these things, especially in the current economic climate. Jobs are scarce, and many Americans complain about being overworked or underpaid, sometimes both. It stands to reason that those with the least amount of access to healthy food and exercise suffer the most.

And then there are the people who just want the government to stay out of their refrigerators.

This is merely an excerpt from my 5,011 word master’s project. To read the rest please contact me via email.