The link between not enough and too much

For some work I’ve been doing–some for a health foundation, about the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ sector, and some for an anti-hunger organization–I’ve been spending quite a bit of time learning and talking about what food insecurity really means, and, in particular, why addressing hunger is an essential part of combating obesity.

The Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, an organization I’ve worked with a lot in the past few years, recently released their 2012 Hunger Atlas, describing what hunger looks like in Kansas, and what it means for health in the state.

And, when people hear ‘hunger’, they think skinny. ‘Hunger’ triggers visions of emaciation, even though very few people who experience hunger in the United States look like that. And those associations matter, because what people think they know influences very much how they respond, even to something as basic as our human need for food.

Anti-hunger organizations today often get push back from donors, advocates, even their own staff, when the people who seek food assistance–at pantries, commodity programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility sites, communal meals–don’t ‘look’ like they are hungry.

Which means we have a lot of work to do.

Because the truth is that being food insecure means that you don’t know where you next meal might come from, which absolutely shapes the decisions you make at this one.

It means that you don’t have good variety in your diet, that you’re lacking key nutrients, and that your meals are irregular, all of which can lead to being overweight. It means that your food budget is stretched, and we know which foods offer the cheapest delivery of energy. The link between obesity and food insecurity isn’t ironic, it’s inevitable, with the way that our food system is structured, whether we are ready to face that or not.

Being ‘malnourished’ means poorly nourished, and that might look like underweight, or it might look like overweight, but it certainly means unhealthy. It means a problem.

And we have to message it that way.

Until everyone has access to enough healthy, affordable food to feed their families well, we can’t even begin to pretend that obesity is a personal problem, instead of one deeply woven into the structures that shape our decisions. Obesity and hunger are not two separate issues. They are two sides of the same coin, a coin that presumes that nutrition is a commodity to be bought and sold, instead of a basic human right, and each side has tragic consequences for individuals and for society.

Obesity is a wicked problem to solve; it’s an adaptive challenge if there ever was one, one which will require us to change the way that we do almost everything.

Including fight hunger. And talk about it.

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