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Hunger and Obesity: Two Sides of the Same Coin

by Andy Fisher

It’s no secret that the country has been facing hard times; still, the soaring number of people who are food insecure is startling. The number of persons receiving food stamps has reached an all time high of 38 million, a 40% increase from February 2008 to November 2009. A recent report by The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), one of the nation’s primary anti-hunger advocacy organizations, uncovered even more sobering news.   This study of food hardship, defined as the lack of money to buy food that families need, revealed that food hardship affects nearly one in five families nationally. Food hardship has risen by 16% from the beginning of the recession to the fourth quarter of 2009.

The study, which was based on telephone interviews with over half a million people nationally, found food hardship rates were even worse for households with children. These households were 160% more likely to suffer from food hardship than households without children. For children living with even modest levels of food insecurity, the impact on their health, cognitive abilities, and development can be severe.

The importance of school meals for these vulnerable children cannot be overstated. Thirty million children eat school meals 180 days a year.  Especially for children in low-income households, school lunch and school breakfast are critical for nutritional well-being. These meals typically comprise at least 50% of caloric intake for the school day, and are often the only nutritious meals these children eat on daily.

The character of these school meals for the next five years will be determined when Congress reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act (CNA), the main legislative vehicle for the school meals and the Women Infants and Children (WIC) programs.  The CNA is currently set to expire on September 30, 2010. Fortunately, President Obama, in his 2011 budget, proposed an extra $10 billion for school meals ($1 billion a year for the next ten years). But Congress holds the nation’s purse strings, so the President’s budget is no guarantee this funding will materialize.

While the advocacy community has identified multiple ways for spending this proposed increase anti-hunger groups like FRAC have prioritized policy proposals that would meet two goals related to quantity:

  • Increase the amount of food provided to low-income students at schools through expanding school suppers, breakfasts, and summer food programs.
  • Increase the number of low-income students on the school meals programs through reducing paperwork requirements and expanding eligibility requirements.

Given the rate of food hardship in households with children, we need to support these sensible, effective ways of ameliorating the harsh conditions caused in part by the current recession.

The quality of school meals is also an area of concern. Life-long eating habits are established in childhood, and schools play a large role in this process. Studies have found that overweight kids are more likely to grow up to be overweight adults.  Many advocates in the public health community have argued for greater expenditures to improve the quality of school meals, to increase servings of fruits and vegetables, and to minimize competition from vending machines, bake sales, and the like. Organizations like the Community Food Security Coalition have championed the farm-to-school cause: increasing the amount of farm fresh products served in schools as part of a broader strategy to improve meal quality while stimulating local economic development through purchases from local farmers.

The quantity vs. quality discussion can be illuminated by a closer look at the data on childhood obesity and food hardship.

Table 1: States with the Highest Rates of Food Hardship

 

Rank  Food Hardship by State (2009)

Rank Childhood  Overweight and Obesity by State (2007)

Mississippi

1

1

Arkansas

2

2

Alabama

3

6

Tennessee

4

5

Kentucky

5

4

Louisiana

5

7

South Carolina

5

13

Oklahoma

8

33

North Carolina

9

14

Nevada

10

11

Georgia

11

3

Florida

12

17

West Virginia

13

8

Texas

13

20

DC

15

9

Twelve of the fifteen states ranked worst for food hardship shared a similar ranking in terms of children’s overweight and obesity (highlighted in blue).  In fact, 2/3 of all states were similarly ranked for childhood obesity and food hardship (within ten places of each, e.g. 35 in one category and 25-45 in another). At the other end of the spectrum, a similar trend is seen. Ten of the 15 states with the least amount of food hardship also have the lowest rankings for childhood obesity and overweight.

Table 2: States with the Lowest Rates of Food Hardship

 

Rank  Food Hardship by State (2009)

Rank Childhood  Overweight and Obesity by State (2007)

Virginia

35

23

Nebraska

36

21

Pennsylvania

36

32

Wyoming

36

45

Hawaii

39

37

New Hampshire

40

35

New Jersey

41

23

Vermont

41

43

Alaska

43

12

Maryland

44

36

Wisconsin

45

40

Montana

46

48

Connecticut

47

45

Minnesota

48

50

Iowa

49

44

South Dakota

50

38

North Dakota

51

45

While hardly a scientific analysis, this comparison appears to confirm the “hunger-obesity paradox,” the apparent incongruity of people being simultaneously food insecure and overweight. Yet hunger, food insecurity, and food hardship are gradations of the same phenomenon in which individuals who cannot afford sufficient nutritious food, fill up on energy-dense but nutrient-poor food, and often suffer from cycles of plenty/want/plenty based on the timing of their income streams. Researchers confirm that these patterns often lead to higher incidences of overweight and obesity. It is becoming clear that the apparently contradictory phenomena of hunger and obesity are flip sides of the same coin; a food system in which filling but fattening foods are inexpensive, and nutritious foods are beyond the reach of many.

In terms of the nation’s most vulnerable — those children relying on school meals to help them grow up healthy — we can no longer consider ourselves successful if we only provide more meals of mediocre nutritional quality. At the same time, pumping more money into improving the quality of school meals without addressing the fundamental question of how to get more children from low-income families participating in the meals programs is socially unjust. Those of us who advocate and care about these issues must recognize the need for a balance of both approaches. School lunch is the place where we can begin to create a food system that puts the health of all eaters first, regardless of family income.

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