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The Childhood Obesity-Hunger Paradox

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There's a paradox at play in America: How can people be hungry and obese at the same time? Perhaps there's no place where this is more evident than in my state. Kentucky ranks astonishingly high on both measures. Ours was named the 6th most obese state in the country in last summer's "F as in Fat 2011" report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Even worse, we were ranked 3rd for childhood obesity, with a whopping 21 percent of children ages 10-17 considered obese in Kentucky. Yet the recent Map the Meal Gap report by Feeding America found that 1 in 6 Kentuckians are food insecure, meaning they don't always know where their next meal will come from. Again, it's worse for children: Almost 1 in 4 children in Kentucky lack consistent access to an adequate diet necessary for an active, healthy life.

Thankfully Kentuckians aren't hiding our heads in the sand about one of these issues. According to a poll released this month by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, a majority of Kentuckians think childhood obesity is a problem. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Encouraging physical activity among children, as is Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, is a great start. So are Farms to School programs and school gardens, which bring fresh produce into school cafeterias.

But we must also take a hard look at the role poverty and hunger play in childhood obesity. Caregivers who are struggling to make ends meet are confronted with the reality that the least healthy foods tend to be the cheapest. They often have to forego nutritious options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, in favor of calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food, such as pasta and white bread. Low-income families that live in neighborhoods without supermarkets stocked with wholesome selections have an additional barrier to getting the kind of food essential to maintaining a healthy weight. Many parents find themselves too exhausted to cook a nourishing meal at the end of a long day, so they settle instead for an easier but less healthy option. How much more so for those dealing with the stress of working two jobs and still not being able to pay the rent?

Despite these challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, Kentucky is one of only 12 states that allocates no state funding in support of food bank efforts, such as Kids Cafes or backpack programs, which provide nutritious, kid-friendly foods to children outside of school hours. In Washington, the House Agriculture Committee recently approved a proposal to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) by nearly $36 billion at a time with the program has never been more urgently needed. We should be guarding and expanding anti-hunger programs, not undercutting them.

Protecting our children from obesity requires more than increased physical activity and access to healthy food at school. It also compels us to do all we can to be sure they aren't coming home to poorly stocked kitchen cabinets. Childhood obesity and hunger are related and real problems -- and both are also really solvable.

Tamara Sandberg is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks. The association is made up of seven Feeding America food banks serving all 120 counties of Kentucky. Last year its members distributed 50.9 million pounds of food and grocery products in Kentucky, which is the equivalent of 39 million meals.

Tamara's piece originally appeared in gcnewsgazette.com and Kentucky.com.

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