By: Emily Kohler
It doesn’t take a dietitian to tell you that America is overeating. There’s food everywhere and plenty of it, right? Actually, not everyone has the ability to indulge—1 in 8, or 41 million Americans experience food insecurity. The reality for those who are food insecure is that instead of overeating endless amounts of food, their access to food is very limited. Recently, as an intern, I’ve had the opportunity to work with this issue at the Manna Food Center of Montgomery County and also at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). Exposure to food insecurity has provided me with a better understanding of my path in life: I’ve learned I want to be a part of the collective effort to break the hunger cycle, and in order to do this, I need to emulate the positive, empathetic, and ambitious attitudes of those that I’ve observed in places like Manna Food Center and FNS.
What is food insecurity?
The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” It isn’t just people experiencing homelessness who are food insecure; in fact, most food insecure individuals have homes and jobs. Entire families can be classified as food insecure and it is common to find seniors and disabled persons in this category. Feeding America, a network of food banks across America, describes their clients as having a median annual household income of $9,175. How would you make ends meet with such limited resources? According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service 2016 survey, 97% of households with very low food insecurity reported that an adult had to cut their meal size or skip a meal due to a lack of money for food and 88% of households reported this occuring in 3 or more months.
What is the result?
What happens when people don’t eat enough? How about when all they have to eat is highly processed foods? The answer is fatigue, malnutrition, and disease. As consequence, financial and productivity burdens accumulate, intensifying this cyclic effect. Policy, community, clinic, and hospital-based interventions are all needed to slow this cycle.
Breaking the cycle within a community
Manna Food Center distributes food to 40,000 clients each year from their warehouse to soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency shelters within Montgomery County. At Manna, I worked in the warehouse for a day to create food packages for their clients. I was told to make sure that each package had as much food as possible inside since, for some clients, this was their main source of food for an entire week. That stuck with me. In addition to this, I noticed that my preceptor sifted tirelessly through items in order to create the perfect box for clients with diet restrictions. This shows the ambition and empathy necessary to normalize the eating experience for clients receiving a small, but impactful package of food.
Breaking the cycle at the federal level
My current rotation is at FNS, which has given me exposure to the policy side of food security. FNS is the hub of 15 nutrition assistance programs. Nutrition Education, Training, and Technical Assistance (NETTA) is a division of FNS and works to improve Child Nutrition Programs. Within NETTA is the branch that I work with called the Nutrition, Education, and Promotion Branch (NEPB), which supports programs by providing educational materials about healthy lifestyle choices based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and awards grants to states working to improve their program delivery. These resources are especially important for programs in food insecure regions, ultimately making strides towards slowing the perpetuation of the hunger cycle. As an intern, I’ve worked with the team to ensure materials are 100% perfect before they are distributed to the public. This requires an aptitude to understand the comprehension and needs of their target audience to ensure their readers will be able to readily utilize the information. In addition to this, like the staff at Manna, FNS team members remain positive and ready to dream big in their goals for the public, despite the obstacles that ensue.
Working to combat the heartbreaking cycle of food insecurity over the past several weeks has inspired me. As I attempt to emulate those who I have shadowed, I’ve reminded myself to celebrate the little wins and trust that my efforts are making an impact. As I practice this, the barriers at hand seem more and more penetrable.