Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How can someone be both chronically hungry and overweight? A look at the Food Culture within Food Deserts

[This post written by Stacy Cherones, president & Co-founder of Get Healthy Dallas]

The combination of hunger and heftiness seems like an illogical contradiction. Some of our most immediate visual associations of hunger are those from media-based fundraising campaigns aimed at curbing hunger in the global south. These campaigns show children with pronounced ribs and distended stomachs, moving their emaciated bodies only with the greatest effort. Hunger is something that shows- it is visually obvious. Hunger and heftiness appearing together makes little sense from this perspective. In these cases, the visual evidence suggests the opposite- that too many calories are the problem, not too few.

What we’ve learned from research in American and British cities is that the conventional measures of calories and physical form are inadequate when discussing hunger at home. Two additional factors must be considered: calorie cost, and access to healthy foods. Firstly, families with tight food budgets try to stretch every dollar as far as it can go. The problem is, there are a multitude of cheap calorie options that are high in simple starches, fats, sodium, and sugar, and low in fiber and nutritional value (they are engineered to trigger our taste buds in the most satisfying ways too). These cheap calories succeed in quelling hunger pains, but fail in promoting health.

Some may note that dry rice and beans provide cheap and relatively healthy calories, and this is true, but that leads us to our second point: access to healthy foods. While some neighborhoods have multiple fresh food outlets, others have none. The term “food desert,” is used to refer to communities with limited or no access to fresh, healthy foods—most importantly, fresh fruits and vegetables. The term is meant to evoke the sense of barrenness related to the lack of access to the basic nutrition necessary to support a healthy life, but “food desert” isn’t a perfect metaphor. There is, in fact, plenty of food available in food deserts, but it tends to be fast food, or convenience store food—the type of food that never spoils.

While dry rice and beans might be ideal healthy options for families with tight food budgets, if these options aren’t readily available in the local neighborhood, then the nearby unhealthy alternatives supply the necessary calories. Residents in these neighborhoods are at a much higher risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The food environment—which is simultaneously a fresh food desert and a junk food jungle—clarifies why hunger and obesity are related problems.

At first blush, the solution to the problem of food deserts seems simple: solve limited access by building new grocery stores. Reality proves rather more complex. Although the term “food desert” was coined in the 1990s, these areas aren’t a new phenomenon. Food deserts have existed for generations, and residents developed ways of adapting to their food environment several decades ago.  Traditional food habits are slow to change, especially when reliable strategies have been developed to deal with food insecurity. Also slow to change are perceptions of corporate supermarkets, which tend to been seen as expensive food outlets.

Where does that leave us, then? An analysis of the food environment can clarify the link between hunger and obesity, but it is inadequate as a guide for moving forward. In order to develop effective strategies for greening food deserts, it is essential to consider not only food environments, but also food cultures. The patterns of life related to the access, preparation, distribution, and consumption of food are powerful means of communicating care within families, among friends, and between neighbors. These patterns must be engaged, and residents must become the primary authors of a healthier, homegrown food culture if healthier patters are to last over time.

Strategies implemented without reference to local food culture have failed. Health and hunger advocates can support a move toward healthier food environments by ensuring that healthy food is both affordable and readily accessible. However, changing the food environment is not enough. In order to create a local food system that prevents hunger and obesity while supporting healthy lifestyles, advocates must also collaborate with residents to ensure that the changes to the food environment are responsive to the food culture that the residents themselves create and sustain.

This will involve a process whereby the food environment and the food culture develop together in phases. Early phases may be best supported by healthy corner store initiatives that ensure affordable fresh food is available in existing food outlets. Homegrown healthy food culture may develop through church-based cooking courses, neighborhood garden clubs, culinary arts programs in the public schools, or any number of creative strategies developed by members of the community.  As the momentum behind healthy food culture builds, more substantial changes in the food environment might be implemented in response. In this way, hunger and obesity might be addressed together in a manner that responds to both the food environment and food culture, promoting a homegrown healthy food system that stands the test of time.

Get Healthy Dallas is a research-based advocacy initiative that helps communities across the city become healthier places, making for healthier people, families, and neighborhoods.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dallas No Kid Hungry Summit

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson: “We will not stop until we know that every child is fed.”
            On Wednesday, November 9th the Texas Hunger Initiative hosted a “No Kid Hungry Dallas Summit,” in partnership with Share our Strength, USDA, The Christian Life Commission, CitySquare, and Feed3 all the Dallas Farmer’s Market.  

"Next Steps" - a Q&A panel on hunger solutions
            “Texas leads in many things, but hunger in children should not be one of them” said Johnson.  Currently Texas is one of the top 5 states in childhood food insecurity and hunger in children means more than poor nutrition.  There are many established links between hunger and poor academic performance, behavior issues, and absenteeism.   “Simply put, hungry kids can’t learn,” said Bill Ludwig, Regional Administrator for the United States Department of Agriculture.  Almost 100% of Texas schools offer free breakfast to eligible students, but only half of those students actually get the meal.  Many students miss out because school buses run late or they fear the social stigma attached to eating the free meal.  Ludwig advocated for the Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) program, a model that allows to students to eat breakfast in the first 15 minutes of their day in the classroom.  "Once we started breakfast in the classroom teachers stopped constantly hearing the phrase "when's lunch" noted Dora Rivas, food services director for Dallas ISD, “and BIC has cut down on behavior issues and nurse visits.”
Melissa Roy,SOS Director of
State Partnerships and Jeremy
Everett, Director of THI
            The summit also discussed hunger in adults.  Currently only 50% of eligible Texas residents receive SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, a well funded program. "Hunger is not a resource issue. We just need a model to get the resources to those who need it," said Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative,  “We have hunger for 3 reasons - lack of infrastructure, lack of collaboration, and lack of accountability.”  SNAP has an economic stimulator effect as well.  Research shows that for every $1 of SNAP benefits spent, $1.87 in economic returns is generated. 
It is the hope of the participants and sponsors of the hunger summit to begin more intentional collaboration between private and public programs and individuals and organizations.  Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, surveying the room of hunger advocates, commented "We have too many well meaning people in our town to let hunger like this happen.”
A list of highlights from the hunger summit can be found on our twitter feed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Status of Elderly and Childhood Hunger Presentation

            The Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) Lecture Series is a way to engage the local community, Baylor students, and Baylor faculty and staff in hunger related issues.  “Raising awareness” is a large component of combatting food insecurity and the lecture series provides a forum for experts in the field to convey their knowledge, expertise, and perspective to an interested and concerned audience.
            We recently hosted Celia Cole, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, to present and lead discussion on “The Status of Elderly and Childhood Hunger in Texas.”  Cole is a leading advocate for hunger in Texas and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the issue.  In addition to her current policy work at CPPP she worked as a Policy Specialist for the Texas Department of Human Services and as a Health and Human Services Policy Analyst for a private consulting firm in Washington, D.C.  “Education is a large part of our work,” said Cole, “one of the biggest barriers we face in combatting hunger and poverty is a lack of knowledge about the history of the problem and what is currently being done about it.”  Among the wealth of insight provided, the presentation included some helpful “hard facts” about hunger in Texas:
  • Only 50% of eligible Texas individuals get SNAP (formerly called food stamps) benefits.
  • Hunger costs Texas $9 billion annually.
  •  Last year SNAP benefits generated $9.1 billion economic benefits in Texas.
  • The current Federal measure for poverty is the same measure of poverty used since the 1960’s.  It does not take into account the cost of childcare, housing, and medical care.
  • Waco residents need to make 166% income about the poverty measure to make basic ends meet. 
“Hearing the history of the food assistance programs helped make sense of the current trends and statistics in food insecurity” said Baylor School of Social Work lecturer Becky Scott, “and it gave fresh perspective on the ramifications of the problem.”
            The THI lecture series is a reoccurring event.  The next scheduled speaker will be Erin Brackney, manager of research and learning for the OneStar Foundation, who will speak “Mapping Resources and Needs in Texas.”
            Other facts, statistics, and insights from Cole’s presentation can be found on our Twitter feed.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Status of Elderly and Childhood Hunger - THI Lecture Series

           On Thursday, November 3rd at 12:30pm, Celia Cole, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), will be leading a discussion on the “Status of Elderly and Childhood Hunger in Texas” at the Baylor School of Social Work.  The discussion will feature an informative lecture and time for Q&A.  The event starts at 12:30pm.  Attendees may bring a “brown bag” lunch.
Ceila Cole is a leading expert on food policy in Texas. In addition to her current policy work at CPPP she worked as a Policy Specialist for the Texas Department of Human Services and as a Health and Human Services Policy Analyst for a private consulting firm in Washington, D.C.  CPPP is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the poor in Texas by working to improve economic and social conditions through public policy work, research, and education.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

KWTX Report - 6 billion dollars unused in fight against childhood hunger

[External link] KWTX reports on childhood hunger in Texas, the programs used to combat it, and the untaped resources left on the table (and visits the Texas Hunger Initiative).  Watch the story here.

The Call to Serve the Hungry

In the video below Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Texas Hunger Initiative talks about the Christian call to serve and his experience in combatting poverty and hunger during a homily at Baylor chapel.