Hunger, Obesity and Innovation in the Emergency Food System

Nationally, one in eight people -- and one in five children -- received emergency food help in 2009, up 46 percent from 2005. Yet, two-thirds, or more than 190 million Americans, are overweight or obese, with women and children living below the poverty level particularly at risk.

It may seem like a strange question -- but is hunger making people fat?

To start, both statistics are a common byproduct of "food deserts." Food deserts are low-income urban neighborhoods littered with fast food joints and corner stores, while grocery stores and fresh produce stands are characteristically absent. The economics of buying food perpetuates the problem, as poor households are often reliant on cheaper, high calorie foods to stave off hunger.

Unfortunately, many of the same high calorie foods have been provided to hungry families by the emergency food system. With many banks relying on the "pounds in, pounds out" system to measure success -- a system that often values the weight of products (think: cans, soda) over the quality and nutrition of food -- fresh and healthful foods have traditionally been harder to come by. Following a 30-40 percent rise in people visiting food pantries since the recession, food banks have become a strategic point of opportunity to improve the health of poor families.

Enter the MAZON - Kaiser Permanente partnership, Healthy Options, Healthy Meals.

MAZON is a national anti-hunger organization that has been at the forefront of advancing the importance of nutrition for low-income families in California by addressing the link between hunger and obesity within the emergency food network. Attracted to MAZON's national prominence, Kaiser Permanente aligned its social mission of community benefit and disease prevention with MAZON's work in the emergency food system. What has resulted is an innovative partnership based on local knowledge, tailored health education and prestigious partners such as UC Berkeley's Atkins Center for Weight and Health to evaluate program efficacy.

"We are interested in collaborative, not prescriptive solutions," explains Marla Feldman, MAZON program director. "We want to be able to respond to individual food banks' needs and work together to determine a path ahead."

Healthy Options, Healthy Meals consists of scaling MAZON's expertise in bringing healthy eating and nutritional education to California's emergency food programs to Kaiser Permanente's eight regions of operation. Kaiser Permanente, in turn, is helping make the health case for healthier food in food banks and using its doctors and other health experts to support changes in local food bank policies and practices.

"We want people to realize that this really is a social justice issue with enormous health consequences," explains Kaiser Permanente Vice President of Community Health Loel Solomon.

Solomon recalled one conversation he had with a food bank director who explained, "What you are asking us to do is to change in an incredible time of change. But we know this is what we have to do."

An incredible time of change it is. The percentage of Americans struggling below the poverty line in 2009 was the highest it has been in 15 years, the Census Bureau reported recently. Four million additional Americans found themselves in poverty in 2009, with the total reaching 44 million, or one in seven residents. While the services of food banks have been subject to exponential demand, national initiatives like the First Lady's "Let's Move" program have simultaneously highlighted the urgent need for education and reform around healthy eating.

"Our nation's food banks are taking steps to improve the nutritional quality of the food they are distributing," says Feldman, "but the process of integrating nutrition and healthy food access into their anti-hunger work requires organizations to broaden the scope of their programs and practices."

This is a difficult and highly political move for food bank boards and donors that are populated by corporate food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Proctor & Gamble and Kraft Foods.

With current projections that spending on health care costs attributable to obesity are expected to rise to $344 billion by 2018, innovative partnerships like Healthy Options, Healthy Meals may just be the missing link that can change the way that the poorest in our country eat. Hunger is not just a problem that afflicts the poor; it is ultimately a social problem that affects us all.