Chronic Hunger, Obesity and Food Access

There is a Burmese proverb that says, “A full gut supports moral precepts.
Conversely it is true that hunger trumps all other aspirations and considerations. Hiram Bonner is the director of Food Change in Harlem, NY, and provides 800 free meals to hungry people everyday. He says, “Our population is so fragile, they’re busy thinking about today, just getting through today”.

35 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Worldwide the number is 800 million; 800 million chronically hungry people in our world. The UN has identified a flip side to the hunger crisis. Now there are more overweight people than chronically hungry people.

Many of those who are overweight can be described as overweight and under-nourished, filling up on empty calories devoid of nutrition. And just as chronically hungry people are bound for a life of reduced physical capacity and increased disease; so too, people who are overweight and obese, have an increased risk of a cascading range of illnesses from diabetes and arthritis to cancer and heart disease.

The NY Times reports that India may have the largest population of diabetics in the world, 35 million people. Diabetes rides the wake of industrialization and western diet. Modern western affluence comes with a heavy, hidden tax. (Make that a Big Mac, side of fries and supersize the insulin.) In India, where there is an extreme cultural sweet tooth, and where prosperity has long been associated with chubby cheeks, the conflation of cultures is not always pretty. In the NY Times article, Modern Times Opens India’s Door to Diabetes, author N. R. Kleinfield says, “In perverse fashion, obesity and diabetes stand almost as joint totems of success.”

In the inner cities of the U.S., a driver of the problem of obesity is lack of access to healthy foods. According to the Center for The Advancement for Health, there are three times as many supermarkets in wealthier neighborhoods than poor neighborhoods. What passes for a food store in many inner city communities is a liquor store with canned food section whose prices are considerably higher than those of a supermarket. But fast food and junk food are ubiquitous and cheap.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization says that “food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Fortunately in some communities there are organizations that have taken on the challenge of providing access to nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA, teaches adults and youth how to grow organic vegetables in urban gardens, and distribute the produce in the neighborhood at a discount.

The Food Project in Boston provides hands-on education in sustainable agriculture, as well as leadership opportunities for youth. On their farm outside the city and on several city lots, each season they grow nearly a quarter-million pounds of food without chemical pesticides, donating half to local shelters.

LaDonna Redmond has been a food activist ever since her son was born with severe allergies and sensitivities to pesticides and toxins. LaDonna said that in the Chicago community of Austin, ”I can get drugs and guns easier than I can get a salad.” So she and her husband Tracy started an urban food project. LaDonna produced an NPR radio piece on the problems of food access in Austin, where there is no major supermarket. Here is the link to that program:


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