03/23/2011 08:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Going Hungry in an Obese Nation

How is it that 17 million children in the U.S. live on the brink of hunger while, at the same time, 9 million American children are obese?

It's certainly a troubling paradox. And it's one of several reasons why many Americans don't quite believe or understand the urgency and extent of hunger in the United States.

Misconceptions about hunger fall into two broad categories: Hunger is overwhelming, unsolvable, and "here to stay." Alternatively, a prevailing view is that hunger can't possibly exist in the U.S. -- it's a developing-world problem. (With one "small" caveat: It occurs among the homeless.) After all, just look at the obesity problem we have.

Let's first address the paradox. Yes, hunger and obesity co-exist. Not surprisingly, however, most of this correlation is linked to poverty. As the Food Research and Action Center explains, low-income families face the same hurdles as anyone else -- they're not eating right and they're too sedentary.

But they also live in neighborhoods -- called "food deserts" -- that lack full-service grocery stores, where healthy food like fresh produce is often more expensive and of poorer quality. And they creatively stretch their food budget by purchasing cheap, calorie-dense foods that will keep their children's stomachs filled longer. There's also a "feast or famine" situation at play -- if you have to eat less or skip a meal, you may overeat when food does become available. And that can contribute to weight gain.

Yes, we have an obesity problem. But we also have a very worrying, largely hidden, and under-discussed hunger problem on our hands.

And it's getting worse. Four years ago, 1 in 10 Americans struggled with hunger. A year later, it rose to 1 in 8. Today, it's 1 in 6. That's 50 million Americans, including 17 million children -- and contrary to popular opinion, only 10 percent of these people are homeless.

We need to re-connect people to the problem and show them that hunger doesn't conform to their stereotypes. But how to do that without shaming, numbing with statistics, and making hunger sound unsolvable?

We need to communicate beyond the statistics and drive home the point that hunger is closer than you think. It's happening to people whose lives are more similar to yours than you think. It's parents who are working and are trying to make ends meet. These are people like you who may have never imagined visiting a food bank or asking for help.

By humanizing hunger and clearing up some misperceptions, we can spur people to action. Thankfully, groups like Feeding America are doing just that. Feeding America's "Real Stories campaign" profiles actual, hardworking people who are struggling with hunger. And in doing so, they're engaging the public to help by donating, volunteering at their local food bank or raising awareness amongst others.

It's difficult to acknowledge that hunger is a problem in the United States. Just as it's difficult for those actually facing hunger to acknowledge it. But that's why we need to break down these barriers, roll up our sleeves and do something.

In this spirit, the Ad Council teamed up with Feeding America to create this public service ad on hunger prevention:

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