Glenn Ellis

*We’ve all seen news reports about people who are starving in countries plagued by war or drought. Unfortunately, many people in the world go hungry because they can’t get enough to eat most of the time.

According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.4 million American families – almost 15 percent of U.S. households – are now “food insecure,” an almost 30 percent increase since 2006. This means that, during any given month, they will be out of money, out of food, and forced to miss meals or seek assistance to feed themselves.

The nation’s economic crisis has catapulted the number of Americans who lack enough food to the highest level since the government has been keeping track, according to a new federal report, which shows that nearly 50 million people — including almost one child in four — struggled last year to get enough to eat.

I myself have recently broadened my focus to the plight of the thousands of Somali’s who are dying everyday as a result of politics and the monumental drought in Eastern Africa. Seeing hundreds of babied die daily from starvation is something I certainly can’t ignore.

But don’t be mistaken; this is not only happening in some far away land. Philadelphia tops our nation’s hunger list, for the second year in a row!

The consequences of having such a poor and hungry place in its midst can be catastrophic for a city, whose young people risk being developmentally compromised by a dearth of nutritious food in their first years.

Hunger is the most commonly used term to describe the social condition of people (or organisms) who frequently experience, or live with the threat of experiencing, the physical sensation of desiring food.

We all feel hungry at times. Hunger is the way the body signals that it needs to eat. Once we’re able to eat enough food to satisfy our body’s needs, we stop being hungry. Teens can feel hungry a lot because their rapidly growing and developing bodies demand extra food.

People with malnutrition lack the nutrients necessary for their bodies to grow and stay healthy. Someone can be malnourished for a long or short period of time, and the condition may be mild or severe. Malnutrition can affect someone’s physical and mental health. People who are suffering from malnutrition are more likely to get sick; in very severe cases, they may even die from its effects.

We live in the world’s wealthiest nation. Yet, 13 percent of people living in the United States live in poverty. In many ways, America is the land of plenty. But for 1 in 6 Americans, hunger is a reality. Many people believe that the problems associated with hunger are confined to small pockets of society, certain areas of the country, or certain neighborhoods, but the reality is much different.

Right now, millions of Americans are struggling with hunger. We all know and are in contact with people affected by hunger, even though we might not be aware of it.

Philadelphia has one of the highest child poverty rates in the US—one child out of three lives at or below the federal poverty level. Many young children and their parents are at risk for food insecurity and hunger.

It also has the highest poverty rate of any major U.S. city, with one out of four people living in poverty. One-third of that population is under 18.

I’m sure many of the “Limousine Liberals” out there

The truth of the matter is that certain groups experience food insecurity at far higher rates than the rest of the U.S. population.  According to USDA, the rate of household and child “food insecurity” among African-Americans and Hispanics is more than twice as high as that of whites.

Why don’t they just make healthier choices with what little food they have you say?

Even when the poor do attempt to eat healthy, it hurts us. A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that so-called “fresh” fruits and vegetables and ground beef found in poor neighborhood groceries were more likely to be covered in bacteria and have higher mold and contaminant counts than those found in wealthier areas. In fact, people who have plenty to eat may still be malnourished if they don’t eat food that provides the right nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

A nutritious diet can help one climb out of poverty or homelessness, but poverty (and homelessness) make it nearly impossible to maintain a nutritious diet. While some of the rich and skinny continue to condemn low-income Americans for being obese, I challenge them to come up a plan for eating healthy on $15 a week. I’d also like to see them design a menu that a single mother working two or three jobs can fix in four to eight minutes!

To better understand the senselessness of this madness, here are some surprising facts about the food supply in America:

1.        40-50% of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten. Research done by a professor at the University of Arizona has shown that nearly half the food produced in the United States every year goes to waste. While news of our throw-away society isn’t necessarily surprising, that so much of what we produce is wasted while millions in our own nation and those around the world go hungry should be appalling.

2.        Every year, over 25% of Americans get sick from what they eat. This means some 76 million food borne infections, 350,000 of which require hospitalization and 5,000 of which are deadly. Think your food is safe?

3.        As few as 13 major corporations control nearly all of the slaughterhouses in the U.S. Why should you care? Because these major corporations pack a lot of political power, making them incredibly difficult to regulate and inspect.

4.        Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food. This means that Americans eat more packaged and processed food than people in any other country, according to the New York Times. Packaged foods themselves aren’t necessarily bad for us, but Americans tend to consume frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, which can be high in fats and salts.

5.        A simple frozen dinner can contains ingredients from over 500 different suppliers. NPR has shown that a basic frozen prepared meal can contain up to 50 different ingredients. These ingredients come from all over the world, changing hands numerous times along the way. This means that in order to trust that your food is safe; you have to trust that all of those hundreds of companies along the way stuck to regulations about food safety.

6.        50% of tested samples of high fructose corn syrup tested for mercury. There has been a lot of debate about the safety and health of high fructose corn syrup lately, and some believe with pretty good reason. HFCS is found in a wide range of food products from bread to catsup.

7.        Americans eat about six to nine pounds of chemical food additives per year. While it may seem that the amount of chemicals you’re eating in your food is inconsequential, over the year they add up. Some may be harmless to you, but others may have effects that are yet unknown over a long period of time.

8.        Food intolerance is on the rise, with as many as 30 million people in the U.S. showing symptoms. Some believe that the growth in food allergies and food intolerance may have to do with our diets. Eating yeast-based foods, preserved meats and processed foods can lead to greater levels of histamine in the body which many people are incapable of processing naturally.

9.        Fewer than 27% of Americans eat the correct ratio of meats to vegetables. Studies have shown that eating too much meat increases your cancer risk, a fact reinforced by the longer life span of cultures that focus more heavily on veggies than meats. By not eating enough of these vegetables, many Americans are missing out on the healthy nutrients, minerals and compounds they contain.

If only poor people understood nutrition, and could do something about it…

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis,  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011.

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