Nutrition Month and the Needy

It’s that time again: March. No, I am not going to be talking about NCAA March Madness basketball or the first days of springtime, but rather another, lesser-known but still wonderful attribute of this month. It is National Nutrition Month in the United States.
With all the work that Pass it Along does to help those who are hungry, it struck me as the right time to talk about the topic. I attended my first “Cooking for a Promise” event this past week, and I can say that I left touched by all the good things that the program accomplishes, but also more cognizant of the nutritional challenges faced by families that may be homeless or enrolled in supplemental nutrition programs.
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The USDA figures suggest that today, one out of every nine people in this country are enrolled in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. As financial stability issues in the U.S. and abroad continue concerning economists and financial markets, the economy stays in a seemingly unending state of flux. With the abundant uncertainties, the labor market is slow to add jobs, and the effect on the millions of people laid off during the recession is amplified as the long-term unemployed give up seeking work, and those newly without jobs use up their savings and eat (literally) into their assets. Both of those scenarios increase reliance on programs like SNAP.
However, the Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research recently looked at biometric data from food stamp recipients, and their conclusions were surprising. The study found that on average, female participants studied who were enrolled in the U.S. Food Stamp Program had a body mass index number at least 1 point higher than other people in similar socioeconomic brackets who did not receive food stamps. A BMI increase of 1 point meant that a woman of average height would be heavier than the control group by 5.8 pounds.
Additionally, food pantry programs, which may be utilized in conjunction or separately from federal nutrition assistance, are great supplemental resources for those who are experiencing hunger or are at risk of food insecurity. However, like many other non-profit sectors, donations to pantries suffer during times of economic hardship. Also, due to storage and food safety concerns, many pantries do not offer fresh produce, considered to be the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Frequently only canned, processed, and other shelf-stable varieties can be accepted as donations, and the balance of donations frequently tips toward the highly-processed and carbohydrate heavy, due to the stability of these foods, as well as their relative inexpensiveness.
So, while individuals and families may be receiving an adequate number of calories per meal thanks to these various forms of assistance, it is quite possible that they could still be undernourished. In fact, while it seems incongruous, is totally possible to be statistically overweight, yet still under- or malnourished.
The struggle to increase awareness about the risks of being overweight (increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, among other things), as well as the nutrition struggles facing families in need, is ongoing. Do your part to increase your awareness and the awareness of others around you. Volunteer at a hunger relief program. Donate no salt added, minimally processed foods, fruits and vegetables in their own juices instead of in heavy syrups, and lean proteins like canned tuna or chicken to help round out the assistance provided by your local food pantries. And finally, check out http://www.eatright.org for more information on National Nutrition Month.  It might even inspire you to create something like the “Nutrition Week” held last week at Hardyston Middle School, hosted in conjunction with the Pass It Along chapter there!
(Sources:  Ohio State University data culled from “Does the U.S. Food Stamp Program contribute to adult weight gain?” study published in the July 2009 edition of Economics and Human Biology; additional info from “Do food stamps lead to obesity?” blog from Lynne Peeples,  published by Scientific American.)
Written by Maren Morsch, AmeriCorps Program Associate

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