by Pamela O’Neal, M.A., Deborah Ballard-Reisch, Ph.D.
Hunger is a public health problem, perhaps the most significant public health problem facing the world today. In 2000, the 193 counties in the United Nations and 23 international organizations identified eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 as their top goal. This goal was reaffirmed at the 2010 Summit assessing progress toward these goals1. In spite of this stated worldwide commitment, hunger is a problem that is easily ignored, especially here in the U.S.
Is hunger so easy to ignore because it is so prevalent?
In the United States:
- 1 in 6, nearly 49 million people, struggle with hunger
- 17 million families face hunger
- In 2010, 59.2% (10,064,000) of food-insecure households participated in at least 1 of the 3 major Federal food assistance programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
- Feeding America provides food to 37 million people each year—up 46% since 2006
- Feeding America’s food banks feed 1 million more people each week than they did in 20062.
Is hunger easy to ignore because, except in parts of the developing world, few people die of hunger? Or is hunger easy to ignore because, aside from discomfort, we’re unaware of the consequences of hunger?
The longer people are hungry, the more likely they are to experience negative physical, mental, and health consequences3.
Pregnant women, who don’t get proper nutrition risk premature delivery, have low birth weight babies, and their babies are at risk for compromised physical development such as blindness, stunting and in severe cases, death4.
- Children who don’t get enough to eat suffer from malnutrition, impaired cognitive development, low bone density (which makes bones more susceptible to breaking and hinders growth), weakened immune systems2, poor concentration at school4, and brain damage5.
- People of all ages who are regularly hunger, or eat poor quality food, have a greater chance of developing, diabetes, hypertension6 and are more likely to have higher levels of anxiety and aggression than those who are not hungry7.
- Families who suffer from hunger, or do not have access to quality food, eat available, less healthy food, which causes excessive weight gain or obesity8.
According to the World Health Organization,3 hunger or low quality nutrition lead to “reduced immunity, increased susceptibility to disease, impaired physical and mental development, and reduced productivity”.
Is hunger so easy to ignore because it’s not viewed as a public health problem?
Public health is about preventing disease and promoting health in individuals, groups, communities, and countries (The American Public Health Association, 2012)9. Hunger would seem to fit. People who eat well are healthier.
However, hunger is caused by a wide variety of personal and cultural dynamics that impact this view. An individual or a family may face large, unplanned expenses, like medical bills, or major repairs to a car or a house, a key breadwinner may lose her job, become disabled, or have his work hours or pay reduced5. Additionally, cultural dynamics also cause hunger: food deserts, or areas with little or no access to nutritious foods, unemployment and underemployment experienced by many Americans as our nation struggles to recover economically, the widespread, and the on-going drought facing the major crop growing regions in the U.S. which will cause food prices to rise this fall and winter.
In this context, hunger becomes a bigger issue for a broader spectrum of Americans, impacting health and well-being not only of the homeless and the poor, but increasingly more often, working class and middle class families as well. These dynamics negatively impact the health of individuals and families. If they don’t have access to quality food, if they can’t afford quality food, they cannot eat well8. If they cannot eat well, they cannot stay healthy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have started to recognize hunger as a public health problem10. In 2010 they featured Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week on their website. Although the website highlighted the effects of hunger among the homeless population and gave links to information about homelessness in the U.S., it did nothing to address the problem of hunger for working people or families.
In 2011, Feeding America released a number of Public Service Announcements starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Taye Diggs, and others that point out how hunger affects families across America, not just people who are homeless, poor, or unemployed*.
These efforts are steps in the right direction. Hunger, as a public health problem, is increasingly hard to ignore. Because it impacts the productivity and physical and mental health of so many Americans, the impacts of hunger on the nation as a whole are significant. In order to promote the health of the nation, individuals must be healthy. In order for individuals to be healthy, they must have access to quality, nutritious food. Recognizing hunger as a public health problem is critical to promoting awareness and assuring access to quality, nutritious food for all Americans.
1. The Millennium Development Goals Eight Goals for 2015. Retrieved August 21, 2012 http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/mdgoverview/
2. Feeding America (2012). Physical and Mental Health. Retrieved June 19, 2012 from: http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/physical-and-mental-health.aspx.
3. United States Department of Agriculture. (2006). Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States: An Assessment of the Measure. Retrieved June 10. 2012 http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11578.html.
4. World Health Organization. (2012). Health topics. Nutrition. Retrieved June 10, 2012. From: http://www.who.int/topics/nutrition/en/
5. American Psychological Association. (2012). Effects of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness on Children and Youth. Retrieved June 24, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/poverty.aspx
6. Seligman, H., Laraia,B, & Kushel, M (2009). Food Insecurity Is Associated with Chronic Disease among Low-Income NHANES Participants. Journal of Nutrition, 140, 304-310.
7. Slack, K & Yoo, F (2005) Food hardship and child behavior problems among low-income children. Social Service Review. 75, 511–536.
8. United States Department of Agriculture. (2009). Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. Retrieved June 24, 2012 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/AP/AP036/AP036.pdf.
9. 4. American Public Health Association. (2012). Get the Facts. What Is Public Health? Retrieved June 10, 2012 from: http://www.apha.org/NR/rdonlyres/C57478B8-8682-4347-8DDF A1E24E82B919/0/what_is_PH_May1_Final.pdf
10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Retrieved June 10, 2012 from http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Homelessness/
*Commercials can be viewed at http://feedingamerica.org/sitefiles/psa/src/videos.html.