Combat hunger, and you’ll combat other health issues.

May 25th, 2012 § 0 comments

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that in a country as prosperous as ours, no one should be hungry. Food is a basic right, and we seemingly have enough to go around.

Yet even with 1 in 6 Americans struggling with hunger, members of Congress will still spend much of this year arguing over the level of support for programs for the hungry in our country.

Lost in the discussions about personal responsibility, government’s role and many other philosophical battles, is evidence that certain food patterns over time lead to health problems.

Hunger isn’t just a social issue; it’s also a health issue.

Hunger can lead to malnutrition — commonly defined as “faulty nutrition due to inadequate or unbalanced intake of nutrients.”

This is not only a situation of insufficient food, but also insufficient healthy food. And as hunger is often a symptom of poverty, those who cannot purchase nutritious food on a consistent basis can suffer from malnutrition and other health problems. This, in the end, means we all pay for it.

A recent Center for American Progress study estimates that health costs from hunger have now reached $130 billion annually.

The report states that “malnourishment compromises the immune system, making hungry and food insecure people more susceptible to disease.” And this is only the beginning of the costs.

Sick adults miss more work, costing productivity dollars.

Sick children miss school, which can lead to poor grades and academic failure, costing potential future workforce opportunities and earnings.

In addition, lower school attendance rates can cost our schools, as funding is tied to attendance.

Surprisingly, some hungry people are also overweight.

This occurs when access to fresh, nutritious food is difficult and expensive, and only calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food is available.

Coupled with changing social patterns, including lack of exercise, many Americans today are overweight and, increasingly, obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 are obese.

This causes many to be at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

The good news is there is an answer.

Just as considerable attention has centered on preventative health measures — from tobacco cessation programs to more city green spaces — there should also be an investment to end hunger, improving our nation’s health at the same time.

The investment involves changing our food systems.

First, make healthy food more accessible, affordable and sustainable.

It shouldn’t be a challenge to find reasonably priced fresh produce in the No. 2 agricultural-producing state in the country.

Much of the cost of food is the transportation. Growing food closer to home and teaching others how to do it well is cheaper and healthier.

Second, teach more best practices, such as how to shop, cook and eat healthy food.

Nutrition education should start in kindergarten and continue throughout high school.

Children should know that their chicken didn’t come in a Styrofoam package but from a farm (hopefully down the road).

Third, continue the investment in our federal nutrition programs. Programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) give hungry people more purchasing power to buy food. Just as with any family pocketbook, data indicate that SNAP recipients also tend to buy healthier food early in the month, when their food budget is at its highest.

By working together, we can start to repair a broken food system that compromises the health of many.

Hunger is a health issue, and it is time we started seeing it as one.

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