What is the number one nutrition and health issue in the news today? Without a doubt, it's obesity. But there's another issue just as high on the national agenda, one that may not receive the same attention but nevertheless presents an equal degree of risk to our country's current and future health and well being. This issue is hunger - or, as it is called in today's policy-making circles, food insecurity.
Earlier this year, television's 60 Minutes alerted the nation about hunger in our nation's families. This news was shocking to many Americans. We have been relentlessly focused on helping our children make healthy choices and eat fewer calories. School lunch and breakfast programs have lowered sugar and fat content and reduced portion sizes. And now we're told many of our children are not getting enough to eat? How can these two problems - obesity and hunger - exist side-by-side in the same community, in the same school, in the same family and, most confusing of all, in the same person?
The fact is that more than 12 million children under age 18 are not assured of the availability of nutritious food. Under-employment, unemployment and even poverty have crept into families where they never existed before. People who needed no assistance now frequent food banks and other catch-as-catch-can resources. These people are the definition of "food insecure."
We all know that hungry children get sick more often and hunger can compromise long-term health, growth and development. When compared to children who are not worried about if and when they will eat, poorly nourished children have lower academic achievement, are unable to concentrate, and display social and behavioral problems.
Low income is one factor behind this situation, but food insecurity - that is lack of access not only to food but also to healthy food - isn't exclusive to communities where incomes are traditionally below the poverty level. A child need not appear malnourished to be food insecure - and that is the key to how obesity and hunger can exist side by side.
The obesity-hunger dichotomy reminds us of the impact of lack of resources, lack of access to healthy food, cycles of food deprivation and overeating, and stressful lives. Because our children's ability to learn is critical to the future of every sector of society, we must be strong advocates for the expansion of child nutrition programs. A meal at school may be the only meal and/or the only healthy meal that many of today's children receive.
We also must be aware of all the resources already available to combat food insecurity in our communities. Kudos, for example, to the state of Virginia - and actor Jeff Bridges and Gov. Bob McDonnell - for the No Kid Hungry Campaign, which seeks to raise awareness of the availability of state and federal food programs. This kind of advocacy is exactly what we need to ensure hungry people take full advantage of every opportunity available for nutritious food.