Solving Hunger Requires More Than Just Food

While many programs provide food to those in need, more comprehensive efforts with an emphasis on nutrition are required to establish healthy change in low income populations.
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Hunger is a serious problem in America, but the remedy is not simply providing calories. One terrible consequence of high unemployment levels from our country's economic downturn is that one in four American children now live in a household that has run out of food. In 2009 16.6 percent of the population lived in "food insecure" households, which have difficulty providing enough food for every member of the house. The most severe hunger problems in the entire country are in the South Bronx, where almost one in three people regularly lack the money to afford a meal.

Hunger leads to severe health problems, especially for children, affecting their ability to learn and leading to obesity and serious long term health problems. Essentially, hunger can stop a child's healthy development in its tracks, never to return.

In fact, hunger and obesity are often seen in the exact same households due to the scarcity of healthy options in low-income neighborhoods and the tendency of food-insecure people to choose cheaper, less healthy options. Obesity greatly increases the likelihood of serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, making the risks associated with hunger even more complex and dangerous.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking with a panel of experts on healthy eating and physical activity, including representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative, the Prevention Institute, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. All agreed that fundamental structural changes are needed to create more opportunities for poor and low-income Americans to make healthier choices. For example, affordable, full-service supermarkets are rare in impoverished neighborhoods like the South Bronx and the existing food stores tend to carry processed foods rather than fresh produce.

While many programs are designed to provide food to those in need, more comprehensive efforts with an emphasis on nutrition -- coupled with efforts that make healthy choices easier -- are required to establish sustainable, healthy change in low income populations. United Way of New York City (UWNYC) is working on several fronts to help alleviate hunger while improving the quality of food accessible to these communities.

Recent grants and donations have increased United Way's ability to help the community. Last month, UWNYC was the recipient of a $2 Million USDA grant in support of a collaboration between public, private, and nonprofit partners aimed at increasing food access to reduce hunger and improve nutrition in impoverished areas. And, today UWNYC announced we are working with Goya Foods to deliver a donation of 75,000 pounds of healthy Goya products to 10 local New York City food pantries. As part of the "Goya Gives" campaign, the company is donating one million pounds of food across the country to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

One of UWNYC's newest programs, Healthy Eating for a Healthy Start, is a pilot project working to impact nutrition policies at eight Head Start centers across the city through improving knowledge about nutrition among staff and families that will encourage healthier eating habits and active lifestyles. Local Produce Link, our joint initiative with Just Food, brings over 226,000 pounds of fresh vegetables from local farms to 44 food pantries and soup kitchens across the city to provide greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

City government, too, is doing its part to help solve this problem. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have implemented a comprehensive set of zoning and financial incentives to open new grocery stores and upgrade existing grocery stores so that New Yorkers in underserved communities can more easily access healthy food options. The City has also introduced a "Green Carts" program in low-income neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Other successful and innovative organizations are working on the hunger and nutrition front: City Harvest collects excess food from various segments of the food industry and delivers it to community food programs throughout the city. The Food Bank for New York City distributes emergency food to pantries and kitchens throughout the five boroughs and, along with United Way, facilitates nutrition education and Food Stamp access. Greenmarket farmers markets in 40 locations across the city accept food stamps, making it easy for low-income New Yorkers to acquire necessary fruits and vegetables.

These programs and others like them provide excellent ways to ensure that each member of our community has access to proper nutrition. But we need a focused, sustained and coordinated effort at the local, state and national levels to create lasting systemic and environmental solutions to the problem of childhood hunger and obesity. While feeding the hungry is an urgent need, it has to be done thoughtfully. Providing cholesterol heavy and nutrient-empty food will only cause additional health problems. Partnerships between nonprofit, government and corporate entities have the potential to be successful models for establishing the necessary, integrated programs that eliminate hunger while maintaining a crucial emphasis on nutrition.

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