Hunger and Obesity… A Strange Paradox

Addressing food insecurity during uncertain times

Debra L. Kibbe

Debra L. Kibbe

By Debra L. Kibbe

In 2006, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported on hunger and obesity in developing countries. Today it is clear these conditions are not only found in developing societies but also in industrialized countries. Stated simply, many women and children in the United States who are obese are also undernourished because of limited access to healthy food, lack of food variety and poor quality nutrient intake. The phrase to describe this scenario of inadequate access, variety and nutrients is “food insecurity.”

How did this hunger and obesity paradox come to exist? More research is needed as some studies show that there is a positive association between food insecurity and obesity; others do not. Several reasons for the paradox have been suggested. Factors such as a divorce, job loss and unexpected family events may affect a household’s food security status. One long-term suggested contributor is growing up poor with periods of food surplus and deprivation. This scenario results in an individual often associating eating with both stress and comfort, resulting in “yo-yo consumption,” which continues into adulthood and may contribute to weight gain.

Of late, much attention has been given to the topics of obesity and hunger in the United States. Millions of dollars are being invested in examining policies, programs, marketing and environmental changes that can impact the prevalence of obesity, particularly among youth. Investment and exploration is also occurring on the hunger side, particularly with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). The act is the most recent iteration of the Child Nutrition Act, which governs federal meals programs, including National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Share Our Strength and Feeding America are also investing considerable resources to address hunger. Why? Prior to 2008, food insecurity for all U.S. households ranged between 10–12 percent. As a result of the economic downturn, the prevalence of food insecurity increased sharply to almost 15 percent in 2008 and has remained at that level.

Food insecurity and weight are being addressed in Georgia at the highest level with Gov. Nathan Deal committing to addressing both concerns. In May 2011, Governor Deal established the Georgia Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) partnership. This public-private partnership is designed to promote childhood fitness and focus on wellness among youth.

Schools play a key role in addressing hunger in Georgia’s children, and all Georgia schools receiving Title I funding are required to adhere to the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Implementation began in 2011, addressing topics such as sodium and fat in foods, availability of whole grain and low fat dairy items and provision of fresh vegetables and fruit on a daily basis.

Leadership at the state, regional and local level will be critical to address hunger and obesity. The Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC) is playing a role at the state level through strategic planning, advisement and committee participation. GHPC is also serving as the facilitator for the Georgia Food Policy Council funded via a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The council is exploring Georgia’s food production, distribution, barriers to access and opportunities to improve the food system that will result in a statewide plan for action. Efforts at the regional and local level particularly may have a tremendous impact on the populations disproportionately suffering from food insecurity and excess weight. The situation calls for a strategic, collaborative and targeted approach that addresses hunger, food access and obesity.

Debra L. Kibbe is a senior research associate for the Georgia Health Policy Center at GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies