More Americans than ever are hungry — and more than ever are overweight or obese. What’s going on here? These seemingly opposite problems are actually very closely related, and the solution to increasing obesity may be helping Americans get more food, not less.
Over 40 million Americans lack food on a regular basis, including one in five children — that’s five kids in each average-size kindergarten classroom. When most of us think of “hunger,” we imagine extreme starvation, but the reality for many Americans is more complex than that. Not having “enough” food can mean not knowing where your next meal will come from, skipping occasional meals or eating small meals to stretch food. For a lot of families, this is a temporary situation that comes and goes in response to a sudden expense (a car breaking down), a change in employment (a reduction in hoursduring a slow season at work) or even time of year (the expensive holiday season).
The surprising and sad fact is that this problem is not limited to the unemployed, but is widespread throughout hardworking families. Nearly two-thirds of hungry households have at least one working adult.
On the other hand, an increasing number of Americans are overweight and obese, including children. We can easily imagine obesity happening from eating too much, and weight loss from an extreme lack of food. What happens somewhere in the middle, when we get food sometimes but not always, or when that food is not quite enough? When our bodies get food inconsistently — when we skip meals often or eat meals that are too small — they hold on to fat to “save” for energy later. This is one reason why many Americans who struggle with not having enough food also struggle with obesity. On top of that, our bodies tend to hold on to fat in times of stress, and not knowing where your family’s next meal is coming from is most definitely stressful. (Also, for me anyway, I am a lot less motivated to exercise when I am low on energy or hungry, which makes matters worse.)
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So one way to combat the rise in obesity is to ensure that food is adequate and consistent for those 40 million Americans dealing with some level of food insecurity. We can do this in part by supporting local food pantries, excellent services that are greatly needed, but they are not enough. More importantly, we must push for policies that protect and secure financial resources for all Americans.
For example, encourage your school district to opt for “universal eligibility” for school meals so that all children receive free breakfast and lunch at school. This provides a boost to working families who make too much money to qualify for discounted school meals, but still struggle with occasional food insecurity. Another great example is to promote partnerships between local farms, schools, and food pantries, which boosts the local economy while also increasing fresh, nutritious options for kids and families dealing with temporary food shortages.
We can also push our policymakers to protect workers’ rights — encouraging employers to increase wages and provide health benefits to more workers — so that families have more resources to spend on food.
Finally, we can look inward and remind ourselves that not everything is what it seems. If I see a person who is overweight eating cheap and filling fast food rather than a pricey low-calorie salad, instead of assuming they are lazy or uneducated, I remind myself that they may be one of the 40 million fellow Americans who could use my support and understanding, not my judgment, now more than ever.
Lillian MacNell is an assistant professor of public health at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C.
Food insecurity panel discussion
On Thursday at 5 p.m., American Public Square presents “Bad Choices. No Choices. Food Insecurity” at UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium. A panel of local, regional and national experts will discuss food insecurity and what can be done to ensure reliable access to affordable, healthy food. For more information and to register for the program visit americanpublicsquare.org or call 816-235-5067.