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Hunger 101: Food Matters to Health

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This just in: What you eat affects your health. And it's true no matter where you live or how much you earn.

For years, Wall Street brokers, Silicon Valley innovators, and celebrities have been paying nutritionists to advise them on antioxidants, balancing their protein consumption, free radicals and gut bacteria -- all under the clear assumption that food matters to health and wellness.

It does.

Yet the obvious nature of this long-known fact has yet to fully pervade the conversation at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, where too often the effort, the policies, and the systems are focused on providing quantities of food without paying attention to the critical link between food and health.

The systems that support food access for poor communities -- including federal programs, grocery chains, and even food banks -- often wind up delivering inexpensive, mass-produced carbohydrates.

This unfortunate phenomenon wasn't meant to disadvantage those with the least economic means.

Rather, the fact that these are the products most available for distribution or donation is an unfortunate collision of capitalism and our taste buds, which tend to crave salt and fat, regardless of whether they belong to the rich or poor. It doesn't help that the things that are best for us are also the most perishable.

But we now have the burden of knowledge. We understand that too much salt and fat can shorten life spans. Refined and added sugar contributes to type II diabetes, which is occurring at higher rates in poorer communities. We know that too much sodium contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease.

As we head into the season of giving, when so many are focused on generously providing food for others, it is critical to pay attention not just to having enough food, but to having enough of the right foods.

At the Capital Area Food Bank, serving the Washington metro area, we are distributing more fresh fruits and vegetables, and are working to provide canned and frozen vegetables with less salt and canned fruit packed in its own juice. We are also trying to lead other food banks in this direction.

If you participate in a food drive this time of year, please try to give canned vegetables without added salt, fruits in their own juices, or canned proteins.

As society better appreciates the pivotal role food plays on our health, it becomes ever more important that our actions and policies are consistent with what we know.