Colorado's children suffer from two seemingly contradictory food-related health problems: hunger and obesity. That's the word from the Colorado Children's Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on improving children's well-being, which organized a luncheon/discussion on the issues of childhood hunger, obesity and poverty yesterday.
Featured speakers Bill Shore, chairman and CEO of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hunger, and Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, which strives to advance economic and social equity, capped off the event with their talk on the relationship between hunger and obesity, and how both are driven by poverty.
"We think of hunger and obesity as very much opposite sides of the same coin for families who don't have the resources, or sometimes, the knowledge to make the best choices for their kids," said Shore, who worked on the senatorial and presidential campaign staffs of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart. "So we've tried nutrition education and, as a major part of our anti-hunger work, we have a program here in Colorado called Cooking Matters. It is a cooking-based nutrition education program that works with families and in many cases, low-income moms."
According to the Colorado Children's Campaign, one in five children in Colorado live in a house that was "food insecure" at least once in the past year, meaning there was uncertainty about whether there would be food for all members of the household. At the same time that children are worrying about when their next meal will come, they are also becoming less healthy. The National Survey of Children's Health determined that Colorado's rate of obese and overweight children grew second-fastest in the nation, behind only Nevada, between 2003 and 2007.
While it might seem like these are two populations growing independent of each other, some children might be food insecure at times while still becoming obese. Many low-income families are also poorly educated about nutrition or live in food deserts, where little of nutritious value is available to them. So when they do eat, it's often convenient, full of calories and devoid of nutritious value. Thus, hunger feeds obesity.
"Both are driven by poverty," Blackwell noted. "It's important to know that. Many poor people who are obese would be very hungry if they weren't eating the things they are eating. And the things they are eating are the only things that are available to them within their budget and within their means. Many people are hungry who are living in shadows and in isolation."
The rate of children living in food-insecure households in Colorado has grown 61 percent since 2001-'03, and the 20 percent of children living in food-insecure homes here is above the national average of 19 percent. In 2003, Colorado had the second-lowest rate of obese and overweight children. By 2007, Colorado ranked tenth-highest.
Supporting Blackwell's point, both of these troubling trends coincided with a sharp increase in children living in poverty. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2009 the number of Colorado children living in poverty doubled and the number living in extreme poverty ($11,000 income for a family of four) has increased by 150 percent. During this time, Colorado experienced the fastest-growing number of children living in poverty in the nation. One in six Colorado children now lives in poverty.
Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign, told the gathering that poverty has increased for a number of reasons, including an inability to recover from the economic downturn at the beginning of the 2000s; a lack of quality education for Colorado's youth, which has made it difficult for them to get quality jobs; and a change in the industries active in the area.
While solving poverty is a more complex and long-term project, addressing childhood hunger and obesity seems much more possible. Shore believes the framework for solving childhood hunger can be in place by 2015, largely through free and reduced price meals available to children at school.
"If you think of our school lunch or school breakfast programs or summer meals, these are programs that have been around for 35, 40 years, they have bi-partisan support, they are one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on by and large, and the amazing thing is, even in this era of budget constraints, they're funded," said Shore. "Here in Colorado in the summertime, only 6.6 percent of all the kids who get a school lunch get meals during the summertime. If they were getting summer meals, those would be fairly healthy, nutritious meals. The meals are 100 percent paid for by the federal government. Over the last two years here, we've driven up the number of summer sites from 250 to 390."
The Lunch Box Express is one program taking advantage of the meals that are available to children. Last summer, Hannah and Allen Levy re-fashioned a school bus, loaded it up with lunches from the Food Bank of the Rockies, and took them to schools in the Englewood School District, where students could pick up free lunch. A short documentary on the project debuted at the luncheon.
Still, national statistics show that 84 percent of the children who receive free or reduced price lunches during the school year don't receive them during the summer. "Colorado has been one of the lowest states in the country in terms of the number of kids who are eligible for participation in these programs who are actually participating," Shore continued. "As a result, there's probably $50 to $100 million left in Washington that could be in this state buying milk from local dairy farmers, bread from local bakers, just having good economic impact on the state. It sounds almost too good to be true, but it's true in every state."
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This happens because many people are unaware the funds are available, he says, and children are largely a voiceless community. "They're kids, they don't belong to political actions committees, they don't have lobbyists, they don't make campaign contributions," Shore noted. "That's the only real disconnect. If there was a $70 million defense contract earmarked for Colorado, somebody would have gotten to the governor's office way before I did a year ago to say, 'Let's get that money here.'"
Fully utilizing school lunch programs is one avenue to change. Blackwell also supports programs like the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which helps bring fresh and healthy food to under-served communities. "While always, everything comes down to individual choices and decisions, their strategies focus on creating environments where the healthy choice is the easy choice," she said. "I think if we can really get momentum behind that from policy-makers, fueled by parents and involved people in communities, we really could reverse the epidemic."
Watney echoed the sentiment that changes need to occur on the individual, business and federal levels. "I hope that people will leave here feeling like they can do something, whether that's donate to a food bank or a summer lunch program, but we also need to support policy that supports getting kids to nutritious food," she said. "We need to support and expand school lunch programs and programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Programs like that and policy-level changes are really what's going to make sure that we're able to address this problem in a significant way."