Hunger is no longer a third world problem. Wealthy countries are facing the fact that an ever-growing number of their citizens are food insecure. Imagine opening your refrigerator and finding it empty. Imagine opening your kitchen cabinets and having no food. Sadly, that’s the reality for 50 million United States citizens; they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That includes over 15 million children and 3 million senior citizens. In Canada, food banks are assisting more people than ever before – 867,948 in March 2010 in a country of roughly 35 million. Thirty-eight percent of these are children.
It’s hard to imagine that so many people in North America don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And it’s having a major impact. Food insecurity leads to what I call the 4 S’s:
Sleep – Ever get up at night to raid the refrigerator when you couldn’t sleep? What if you had no food for dinner? Going to bed hungry makes it hard to sleep. And poor sleep increases the risk of obesity; it lowers the production of the hormone leptin that make us feel full. It also increases the production of the hormone ghrelin that make us feel hungry. Too little sleep is also linked to an increase risk of Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease.
Stress – It’s hard to fathom how stressful not knowing where your next meal is coming from. And it never stops. We all know how bad constant stress makes us feel. It also makes us sick. Stress is associated with High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease.
Stamina – Anyone thinking about where their next meal is coming from is likely not to be thinking or participating in regular exercise, and that increases obesity, stress and heart disease.
School – It’s well known that kids who don’t eat breakfast do worse in school. That leads to poorer grades, a higher risk of dropping out, twice as many absences and a larger likelihood of lower income or living on welfare.
In addition to how badly the people feel, the 4S’s lead to major medical issues that I call M & Ms.
Malnutrition – A person with limited money is more likely to eat junk food. Poor food choices lead to vitamin deficiencies and too much sugar, salt and trans-fats. A mother may also have to decide between feeding her kids breakfast or dinner.
Medical Problems –
Not taking medications – For an increasing number of people, it’s necessary to choose between buying food and buying medicine.
Type 2 Diabetes – with limited money, it’s far easier to eat fattening or unhealthy foods such as junk food, fast food, sodas and sweets. They are both cheaper and more readily available.
Obesity – Not everyone who is overweight eats too much. They may be eating poor food choices; it’s not always the quantity, it’s the quality. And people who have to skip meals because there isn’t enough to eat often overeat when food is available. This “yo-yo” dieting conditions their bodies to store more food as fat to serve as a source of energy for the lean days.
So now we know why food insecurity is unhealthy. But there is another component to food insecurity that is unhealthy for the country. It hits the United States in two of her most vulnerable places – financial problems and healthcare.
The financial crisis is affected because 1 in 6 food insecure Americans are going to do less well in school, have poorer paying jobs, be more likely to miss work if they have a job and potentially be unemployed. That is going to have a major impact on the work force and the economy of the United States.
Food insecurity’s impact on healthcare is also great. With 1 in 6 Americans at twice the risk for illness and at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, the impact on healthcare and its associated costs will be enormous.
But there is a silver lining. We can all do something to help. Consider donating food or any amount of money to a food bank near you or to Feeding America or Food Banks Canada. In today’s economy, they need our help more than ever before because the people in need are increasing. Even states like Connecticut, the country’s wealthiest state, is adding people to the food insecure list at a rapid rate. We can also be more tolerant of people who are overweight. It just might be that they are food insecure and trying to get by on higher calorie, poorer quality food. Finally, we can spread the word. Awareness can make a huge difference. A little bit of change can make a lot of difference. Be part of the change.
I’ve added a video of my presentation to the Connecticut Food Bank. It highlights these and more points and includes the Phat Fat Rap song.