Better Nutrition, Healthier Communities

March 12, 2012

Hunger and obesity do coexist. In honor of National Nutrition Month, Vicki Escarra writes about the hunger/obesity paradox and some of the reasons why residents in low-income communities are more likely to struggle with weight and diet-related illnesses.

March is National Nutrition Month and what better time to look back at the New Year's resolutions that we've already let slide. Perhaps we haven't kept up our promises to eat healthier, cut back on sugar, or skip that afternoon cup of coffee we learned we can't make it without. According to a 2007 study from the University of Bristol in England, 88 percent of New Year's resolutions fail.

While I cannot speak to the individual resolutions made by Feeding America staff, the organization's commitment to better nutrition has never been stronger. Ending hunger is not just about delivering food, it's about delivering the right kinds of foods that promote good health among the 37 million people we serve.

Hunger is helping to fuel today's public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 35.7 percent of U.S. adults and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents age 2 to 19 are obese. While these numbers reflect our nation's population as a whole, we know that risk of obesity is far greater for low-income families who struggle to get enough to eat.

It is paradox. How can someone who faces hunger also be obese? The fact is that the two can and do co-exist.

  • Families with limited resources are often forced to purchase low-cost, high-filler foods in order to stretch their grocery budgets further.
  • Many low-income families live in impoverished communities where there are few options for healthy food purchases. Known as food deserts, these areas have no traditional grocery stores or markets that offer fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, meats or fish. Instead, the only options for food are fast food restaurants that offer cheap meals, or convenient stores and gas stations that sell over-priced, pre-packaged foods that are loaded with calories, but have little to no nutritional value.
  • Studies also show that when food is scarce, a person's body adapts by retaining more weight, much like that of a yoyo-dieter. Parents and caregivers with small children are often victims of this type of weight-gain as they often skip meals themselves so that their children will have enough to eat.
  • Low-income neighborhoods are often communities that provide little support for physical activity. Fewer sidewalks, public parks or playgrounds, or high-crime areas can reduce residents' likelihood to exercise.
Not only is a food-insecure person's risk of becoming overweight or obese higher, but so is their likelihood of developing a diet-related illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes. For the same reasons that hunger can lead to obesity, chronic illnesses occur with greater frequency among people in low-income communities. According to the CDC, one out of every three children born after 2000 in this country is expected to develop diabetes. I don't know how we expect the next generation to take care of our nation if they will be too sick to take care of themselves.

We are fortunate that the concern about the coexistence of hunger and obesity and chronic illness is growing. Awareness is being raised about the issue on the national stage from the First Lady's "Let's Move" initiative, to the grassroots efforts of community groups to bring healthier food options to low-income neighborhoods. Feeding America is also working to provide more fresh, nutritious foods to people in need. Last year, we provided 500 million pounds of fruits and vegetables to people facing hunger. But our food banks do more than just distribute healthy foods--nearly 70 percent provide nutrition education and more than half support or farm their own community gardens. We are also teaming up with the USDA through their MyPlate initiative to work with dozens of organizations and companies to ensure that low-income families also have the support they need to make healthy food choices according to the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines.

Our partnership with MyPlate is part of a larger nutrition effort that has always been a part of the Feeding America mission. Working with our partners in the produce industries and companies dedicated to promoting good health across the communities where there employees and customers live and work, we will achieve our goal to provide an additional 1 billion pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables annually by 2015. It's quite a resolution, but one that we are all committed to seeing through. The health and wellness of our communities is too important to put off until next year.

Become a fan of Vicki Escarra on the Huffington Post.


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