THE BLOG
02/11/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

A Broader Dialogue: Addressing Hunger for a Healthier Tomorrow

Every day, the epidemic impacts of poor nutrition, obesity and hunger are having severe health consequences across our national population, costing our country billions of dollars each year. Hunger among children, seniors, pregnant women and other adults has an effect on all aspects of wellness, from chronic disease to mental illness. Throughout my 24 years as a U.S. Congressman, I repeatedly witnessed the widespread and long-term consequences of hunger on the health of individuals and communities. I saw severely malnourished children struggling to stay awake in the classrooms of Dayton, for example, and senior citizens in Appalachia stretching a can of soup to afford their ever-increasing medical bills.

Hunger and malnutrition have long been issues covered in the media, debated by politicians, and battled by charities and non-profits worldwide. Yet only recently has the strong connection between U.S. hunger and health been brought to the forefront of this pervasive conversation. With one in six Americans lacking access to affordable and nutritious food, the immense and devastating consequences of hunger on the long-term health of our citizens can no longer be ignored. Furthermore, researchers estimate that hunger-related healthcare costs amount to roughly $130.5 billion annually -- a startling burden that our country just cannot afford.

Adequate nutrition and caloric intake are critical for numerous aspects of health, including heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and developmental delays. Malnourished mothers are at risk of delivering underweight babies who face undue challenges from the very beginning. Senior citizens who do not get enough healthy food are less equipped to ward off infection and disability, making them all too likely to end up back in the hospital. The risks associated with obesity, which is often caused or exacerbated by a lack of affordable healthy food options, are innumerable. And most simply, think of how many medications require that the patient take with food...

Immense potential exists for healthcare organizations to play a role in providing nutritious food for patients and members of the community. ProMedica, a Mission-based, non-profit healthcare system in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan and innovative leader in this work, has already demonstrated its capacity for anti-hunger engagement. Last year, ProMedica began a food reclamation program, repackaging unserved food from a local casino and from some of their hospital cafeterias for redistribution by a food bank to homeless shelters and other community feeding sites, totaling more than 70,000 pounds of saved food in 2013 alone. Furthermore, ProMedica hospitals are now screening patients for signs of hunger and malnutrition while also providing those in need an emergency food supply upon discharge and connections to community resources for further assistance. Once addressing hunger is made a priority within our healthcare system, the health outcomes of our national population will improve and our financial investments will see greater returns.

To address hunger as a health issue, my organization, the Alliance to End Hunger, has joined forces with ProMedica to host the Come to the Table Summit on Feb. 27 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. This half-day event will bring together leaders from healthcare, Congress, social service agencies, anti-hunger organizations and government institutions in order to share viewpoints and knowledge, with an end goal of encouraging national healthcare organizations to be part of the solution to this national problem.

It is clear that too many individuals are suffering on a daily basis from preventable, chronic health ailments stemming from malnutrition and lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. We must broaden the dialogue about addressing hunger as a health issue and make it a policy priority within our Congress. We encourage those wishing to learn more about this issue to contact my office at info@alliancetoendhunger.org or visit www.promedica.org/cometothetablesummit.

Ambassador Tony P. Hall is the Executive Director for the Alliance to End Hunger. Previously, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, Italy, from 2002 to 2005. Prior to his diplomatic service, Ambassador Hall represented the Third District of Ohio in the U.S. Congress for 24 years.