Monday, November 23, 2009

"Food Security" vs. "Hunger": Dueling national reports

The Columbus Dispatch reported this morning about the myriad challenges faced by the Ohio Department of Health in its current overhaul of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. The overhaul hopes to increase access to fresh and nutritious foods for the 300,000 Ohioans who receive the WIC benefits, but in so doing may have made the program even more difficult and confusing to navigate. From the story:
The biggest overhaul in its 35-year history leaves the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program with a dual mission: fight childhood hunger and childhood obesity at the same time.

Proponents say it's possible to win on both fronts. But they also admit that it isn't easy turning WIC from a basic supplier of milk, eggs and cheese into a public-health campaign with food prescriptions so specific that only certain types of canned salmon (pink, not red) and sliced bread (whole wheat, never white) will do.

"I do think that the changes are good because you get more fruits and vegetables," said Stephanie Green, a North Side woman who counts on WIC to help with food for her and her 8-month-old son.

"The problems are just in how they did it. It's very confusing."

Health officials say the new list of WIC-approved foods, which specifies brands, could fill a notebook. It took effect Oct. 1 in Ohio but already is set for a January revision as more companies seek to have their products added.

  The story goes on to mention two, seemingly conflicting reports, both released last week, that tell of the highest recorded rate of food insecurity in United States (USDA) and the highest rate of recorded childhood obesity for Ohio (Trust for America's Health).

Those two reports don't seem to fit with each other, but they do. Health departments around the country have been trying to re-frame the issue of hunger as not a complete lack of food, but a lack of nutritious food. The term "food security" often replaces "hunger" in food policy discussions in the U.S., and it has become the best way to define the dearth of fresh-food access for low-income Americans. Hunger in the U.S. doesn't look the same as hunger in the 3rd World.

This is a growing trend. In 2006, MSNBC reported that the number of overweight people in the world-- nearly 1 billion-- had surpassed the number of undernourished people-- 800 million. That number may be influenced greatly by the obesity epidemic in China, but it has repercussions the world over.

The Dispatch story ends with arguably the most important information of the whole article: the places where an increasing number of Americans get their food-- bodegas, corner stores and gas stations-- don't have fresh food, and that's a problem.
Some advocates for the poor applaud the move toward more-healthful foods but worry about access. Many mothers with young children don't have cars. And if Aunt Millie's Hearth All Natural 7 Grain hamburger buns meet the new WIC standards, it won't much matter if the corner store doesn't stock them and the big-box is too far away, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

"I'm very, very concerned about access," she said. "By and large, these neighborhood stores do not carry fresh fruits and vegetables."

 Farmers markets can help fill that fresh food void, but there aren't enough of them to realistically address the problem. Hopefully the WIC overhaul will help increase that access, but only time will tell.

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