In a month when many Americans are resolving to adopt healthier eating habits to counteract the excess imbibed during the recent holidays, January should also be a time to remember that for many families in America, struggling to put food on the table is an everyday concern. Such concern also extends to providing meals containing recommended servings of fruit, vegetables, and nutrients. This issue of food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to as the lack of access “by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” plagues almost 15 percent of Americans, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks.
Colorado has been classified as one of the healthiest states in the country for many years, ranking the eighth overall healthiest state by the United Health Foundation in 2014, yet rates of obesity for Colorado residents, particularly children, are increasing. According to a 2008 report from The Colorado Health Foundation, if the current rate of obesity continues, two out of three Coloradoans will be obese by 2017.
In 2012, Feeding America designated 14.6 percent of Coloradoans as food insecure. This percentage varies within several points at the county level; the five counties in Colorado with the highest rates of food insecurity are San Juan, Denver, Bent, Otero, and Huerfano counties, all of which have rates ranging from 16.3-17.5 percent. Furthermore, one in seven children in Colorado is at risk for malnutrition. Malnutrition in children has been shown to contribute to poorer health, general fatigue, increased hospitalizations, behavioral difficulties, and impaired performance at school. This can lead to an unending, vicious cycle where poor academic performance as a child leads to a lower income as an adult, which then contribute to poor health all over again.
In Illinois, according to the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, 62 percent of Illinois adults are overweight or obese. The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) reports that in the city of Chicago, pre-teen and teen obesity rates exceed U.S. levels. Trending with national data, the prevalence of obesity among Chicago children living in communities of color is significantly higher compared to Chicago children as a whole and U.S. children nationally. In addition to the social costs, Illinois also pays a high economic cost – adult obesity in the state adds $3.4 billion to annual health care costs.
With the U.S. Surgeon General having set the Healthy People 2020 goal of having 70 percent of U.S. adults at a healthy weight, it is clear that there is work to be done in order to reverse these trends, and make our communities healthier and more secure.
Across the country, there are numerous organizations dedicated to ending food insecurity and both preventing and reversing high levels of obesity in their respective states. Below, we have highlighted local efforts happening in the communities where HMACS is working, as well as one national program.
Our team has worked with the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council on the connections between traditional healthcare and community-based food organizations. Grow Pittsburgh and Just Harvest are two members of the Council who are addressing children’s access to healthy food and issues of food insecurity due to poverty.
Denver Urban Gardens
Community gardens have been shown not only to improve a community’s health by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also to increase levels of physical activity and improve connectivity between neighbors, building a greater sense of community. Denver Urban Gardens is a nonprofit organization that currently operates over 135 community gardens through the Denver Metro Area; these gardens include more than 40 gardens established at schools in the area.
Hunger Free Colorado
Created through a partnership between the Colorado Anti-Hunger Network and the Colorado Food Bank Association, Hunger Free Colorado works towards the goal of ending hunger in Colorado through connecting families and individuals to food and nutrition resources, advocating for policy changes in the state, and collaborating with community organizations and government agencies. Hunger Free Colorado was instrumental in the passage of Colorado HB 13-1006 in 2013, which ensures that students have access to breakfast in school. All Colorado schools (except for those classified as a “small, rural school district”) will be required to participate. Benefits of the program include increased participation in school, improvement in health, and increase in revenue (the program is anticipated to bring in an estimated $22.9 million in federal funding).
Illinois Commission to End Hunger
The Commission to End Hunger was created by legislation in 2010 to guarantee collaboration among government entities and community partners in order to ensure that no man, woman or child in Illinois should ever experience hunger. The Commission is charged with developing an aggressive and achievable action plan that would measurably reduce hunger in Illinois. The four overarching goals of the Action Plan are:
- End hunger by improving access to quality, nutritious food among all Illinois populations.
- Build needed state infrastructure and foster communication and collaboration among government programs and agencies.
- Create public awareness of hunger and the solutions.
- Build and expand collaborative partnerships between the public and private sector to implement Commission goals
Link UP Illinois (Experimental Station)
Link Up Illinois strives to make farm-fresh foods more affordable by doubling the value of LINK card purchase at farmers markets across the state. In Chicago, Link Up Illinois is sponsored by the Experimental Station, which builds linkages between local agricultural producers and consumers.
LINK Up Illinois helps to achieve this goal by providing farmers markets across the state with funding for Double Value Coupon incentive programs for LINK Card (Illinois’ SNAP program, formerly known as “food stamps”) shoppers. This allows residents utilizing public benefits to supplement their pantries with fresh fruit and vegetables. LINK Up Illinois also provides participating markets with training and technical assistance for implementing these programs successfully.
WIC Farm to Family Program
As part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, the Farm to Family program (outlined well in the Farmer’s Handbook) is a way for participants in WIC to gain access to fresh, local produce available at area farmers markets. Approved farmers are authorized to accept WIC checks for certain fruits and vegetables.