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Still Hungry in America, Part Two

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Still Hungry in America, Part Two

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Still Hungry in America, Part Two

Still Hungry in America, Part Two

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In the second part of our story, Michele Norris reports on contemporary health problems in Belzoni, Miss. In the 1960s, it was starvation among Belzoni's poor that drew attention across the country. But in 2006, residents are suffering from an epidemic of obesity.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now we continue our look at the Mississippi town of Belzoni. In the 1960s, a photographer chronicled the poverty there in a book called Still Hungry in America. We retrace that photographer's visit to find out if the government programs aimed at ending hunger had made a difference.

Our trip took us back to Belzoni and the rows of dilapidated little white shacks that after all these years still housed poor families.

(Soundbite of bell whistling)

NORRIS: The epicenter of this area of town is a bustling corner store called Della's Sack and Go. The owner, Della Miles, or Miss Della as she's called, is the eyes and ears of this neighborhood.

(Soundbite of street and store noise)

NORRIS: Della Miles wears a bright blue smock. She has a mane of regal gray hair. She doesn't just own the store, she also owns the shacks that surround it. Miss Della is a complex character - a source of food, shelter and the occasional loan. But she also contributes to and profits from the habitual diet of cigarettes, snacks and 40s, or 40-ounce jugs of beer and malt liquor.

Right now at the store you got chips and you got cookies and you got pork rinds, lollipops and Now-and-Laters and Mighty Bites. Is this what a lot of people in the neighborhood buy now?

Ms. DELLA MILES (Storeowner): Yeah. They buy the chips. You know, children are always going to buy chips and candy. I do not give children candy, because I know they're gonna get it on their own. I'll give them a pickle or something or maybe freeze pops, you know, and I said, take that. But candy, this is fattening. That's why we have so much obesity now.

NORRIS: Do you struggle with that? Is that difficult for you? I mean, cause you know that if people buy this and if they eat this -

Ms. MILES: I can't change the world, honey. It's a lot of people been here way ahead of me. They didn't change it. They dead and gone. And I can't change it.

NORRIS: Even the poorest in Belzoni now have the means to feed their families, but that doesn't guarantee that they will feed them well. And that's the irony here. Once known as a place where families were starving, Belzoni is now dealing with an epidemic of obesity. The roots of that problem begin at birth.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

NORRIS: It's Child Health Day at the Humphreys County Health Department. Aletha Blatton(ph) has brought in her 4-month-old foster son, Cameron, for a check-up.

Unidentified Woman: Cut down on your eating.

NORRIS: Cut down on your eating. Well, that's something you wouldn't hear from poor families back in the 1960s, so says Dr. Aaron Shirley. He was one of those doctors who chronicled hunger in the Delta back then. Dr. Shirley says a hard lesson is that more is not always better.

Dr. AARON SHIRLEY (Jackson Medical Mall Foundation): They have food in the cupboard. Unfortunately, it's not the right food. And that's a whole other story. When you say malnutrition, the first thing you think about is not enough food. Malnutrition, I mean, inappropriate nutrition. There was a time when parents cooked and the meal was more nutritious than you would get in a fast food restaurant. Now it's convenience.

NORRIS: Remember that infant, Cameron?

(Soundbite of women talking)

NORRIS: His growth chart shows that he's in the 20th percentile for his height and the 90th percentile for his weight. He's growing too large too soon, a story that's far too common here.

Dr. CARLTON GORDON (Pediatrician): Outside the biggest health concern that's facing children today is overweight.

NORRIS: Dr. Carlton Gordon is the local pediatrician in Belzoni. He has several young patients with weight problems that make them prime candidates for type 2 diabetes.

Dr. GORDON: I see adults, I see lots of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems. And these are in 40s, 50 and 60-year-olds. Well, to me, it's scary that we're seeing, you know, I've got a 10 and 11-year-old with a problem they shouldn't get until they're 50 or 60.

NORRIS: When you talk about obesity, particularly obesity in children, how far above of the sort of average percentile for weight?

Dr. GORDON: Basically you're looking at a growth chart and anything over the 85th percentile for weight would be considered, I guess, kind of obese in children. So if you're 300 pounds, you know, if you're seven feet, eight feet tall, that's probably fine. But if you're five foot, way too big.

NORRIS: Are you seeing children who weigh 250 and 300 pounds?

Dr. GORDON: I've got a girl that just turned 10 who's 300 pounds. She does not have diabetes yet. Now she will, you know, if that's not addressed.

NORRIS: What does early onset diabetes mean for these young people? What are their lives likely to be like as they get older? What kind of risks and challenges are they going to face?

Dr. GORDON: Well diabetes is one of the leading causes of, you know, people having a heart attack. If you're diagnosed at age 10, when you're 40, you may be having your first heart attack or first heart surgery for a bypass. Dialysis, kidney failure, blood pressure, diabetes - those two are the leading causes. So you're at age 10, you may be on a dialysis unit at age 40. It's scary. I don't have a good solution.

(Soundbite of Head Start program)

NORRIS: While in Belzoni we visited one of the programs that emerged in the 1960s to help combat hunger. After four decades, the Head Start program is still going strong.

We happened to visit on picture day and children are dressed in bright outfits and elaborate hairdos. Some look like an explosion of gumballs. As the kids hammed it up for the camera, I couldn't help but think of the children in that book, Still Hungry in America, kids whose expressions were as vacant as the cupboards in their kitchens.

Today, the youngsters have a better outlook but their diet still puts them at risk. That point is obvious when you look at the parents gathered in the room. The majority are overweight. Ken Dean, our guide on this trip, says solving that problem will be quite a challenge.

Mr. KEN DEAN (Al Clayton's former guide): It's easier to talk to people about being hungry than it is to talk to them about being fat. So we have the terrible problem of obesity beginning to spread, resulting in diabetes. But, you see, that's not peculiar to the Delta. Because obesity and the increase of diabetes, that's an American problem. And strange way to say the Delta's come into the mainstream of America.

In 1967, pictures of starving children from Belzoni helped motivate a nation to combat hunger. But obesity, as an issue, it just doesn't tug at the heart in quite the same way.

(Soundbite of photographer leading children)

NORRIS: You can see photographs of Belzoni today and images from the book, Still Hungry in America. You'll find that at our website, NPR.org.

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