The new look of hunger

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There is a new face to those who lack access to affordable, nutritious food, according to USF College of Public Health’s Dr. Lauri Wright.

“When people think of food insecure hunger, they think of the commercials they see on TV of starving children with skinny arms and distended bellies, but what it looks like today is what we’re calling the hunger obesity paradox,” said Wright, an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Family Health (CFH) and registered dietician.

With one in six Americans defined as food insecure, 16 million of which are children, the COPH, Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, Department of Anthropology and Feeding Tampa Bay, decided to host a symposium to shine a spotlight on the issue.

Food Insecurity Audience

The New Face of Food Insecurity was held for the first time at the COPH and will become an annual meeting. The event aimed to increase awareness of the hunger-health connection among those lacking access to nutritious food options. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

“When people are food insecure, their coping strategies are such that they want to just take the edge of their hunger so they buy inexpensive food, but the foods are usually calorically dense, so, we have a rise in obesity, and obesity-related diseases in those that are food insecure,” Wright said.

The symposium, the New Face of Food Insecurity, hosted April 22 at the COPH, brought together close to 100 community members, faculty, staff and students to share how they could address food insecurity, as well as discuss its long-term associated health issues.

“As a pediatrician and epidemiologist, you couldn’t hit a more important topic, from my perspective,” Dr. William Sappenfield, director of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies and chair of CFH, said in his welcoming address. “For children, in which I’m very interested in, that means one in five are suffering with the problems related to it.”

According to Wright, the national obesity rate is 25 percent for the general population, but for food insecure individuals that number increases to 35 percent.

She also said that one in three individuals that are food insecure have diabetes and over half have high blood pressure.

“The conference was really to bring together the university and the community to show how we can partner to work on these problems,” Wright said. “We were able to show projects we have done partnering with the community to really look at food insecurity and health implications.”

Students and researchers also shared how they have addressed hunger in their areas.

Dr. Colleen Spees, academic researcher and dietician at The Ohio State University, shared how a partnership between her local community and university addressed food insecurity.

“We hear about food insecurity and I have to remind people what I’m talking about. It’s really about choices and when people are at a place, where, fiscally, they don’t have the resources to make choices that more of us without fiscal challenges do, they have to choose between food and other stuff,” Spees said. “Sometimes it could be fiscal choices between food and getting a car fixed or paying the rent.”

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Dr. Colleen Spees of The Ohio State University served as the symposium’s keynote speaker. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Spees and colleagues developed and implemented CARE Connect, a multidisciplinary health initiative that provided education, referrals and services for food insecure families on the Southside of Columbus, Ohio.

As a result of the partnership, Spees shared how food pantry clients were found to have health risks and conditions that were unmanaged due to inadequate access to health care.  She said the multidisciplinary nature of partnership made addressing the issues of the clients manageable.

Executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay, Thomas Mantz, spoke of a new partnership to address food insecurity in Tampa Bay.

“A significant portion of our community is struggling with hunger on a daily basis and part of the reason why it is undocumented are the stigmas associated with it,” he said.

Feeding Tampa Bay has signed an agreement with USF to shift how they plan to approach hunger, with aims to model The Ohio State University and mid-Ohio food bank efforts Spees spoke about.

“In the Tampa Bay area there are 700,000 people who are food insecure,” he said. “For all of us, the fundamental shift that has to occur is that we have to bring other folks into the conversation.”

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Thomas Mantz, director of Feeding Tampa Bay, shared how food insecurity in Tampa Bay has a lasting impact on families, especially among children. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Putting out meals is always going to be critical, Mantz said, but the other part of the outcome needs to be helping the community understand the importance of addressing food insecurity.

“We in this room, as the broader collective, have to help the community understand that if we don’t start to feed our fellow citizens, our colleagues, our friends, our family, those in our neighborhoods, the ultimate outcome is going to be devastating,” he said. “I don’t have to tell this room what the lack of access to nutrition means and what the long-term prospects for a child mean.”

The Hunger Action Alliance, the formal partnership between the USF College of Arts of Sciences, COPH, and Feeding Tampa Bay, aims to improve hunger relief efforts and examine the long-term health effects of poor nutrition.

The alliance has started its research with a backpack program delivering more than 1,000 meals to food insecure children each week. They also plan to examine mobile food pantries among those living in food deserts, where access to fresh fruits and vegetables are limited.

“Our goal is study, understand, build program, restudy, change, move, start to develop broader systems that the collective of all us together start to implement longer term programs and solutions that not only provide food, but provide food in such a way that it works in the broader framework of the conversation about poverty,” Mantz said.

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The symposium concluded with a networking opportunity for attendees. (Photo by Anna Mayor)

Wright said she hopes to hold the symposium annually at the COPH, and that she is grateful for the willingness of all parties to address the issue of food insecurity.

“I really appreciate the Dean’s [Dr. Donna Petersen] support of this symposium to raise awareness of this issue and bring together the university and community to work on it,” she said. “There was definitely a lot of synergy between the faculty and community partners looking at ways that we can work together in the future.”

To donate to USF’s Feed-A-Bull Food Pantry, click here.

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USF Teams With Feeding TB To Study ‘Food Insecurity

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health