The importance of nutrition security
By Guest Columnist JENNIFER OWENS, president of HealthMPowers
For decades, the issue of food security has driven policy debates, charitable giving, community development and strategies to improve population health. Access to food among under-resourced communities, especially in difficult economic times, is a perennial issue. At no time in recent memory has that been more heightened than during the pandemic.
To our collective credit, we stepped up. The charitable food system distributed the most food ever in response to the great need. Long lines at food banks, food relief fundraisers on national television and food collection drives were a part of daily life. And the charitable food system, quite literally, kept food on the table of millions.
In the initial wake of the pandemic, I volunteered to make food deliveries to quarantined children whose parents had lost their jobs, and who were unable to access the school meals they relied upon or regular time outside to safely play. But I wasn’t armed with food that nourished the body. Instead, I had bags of empty calories that yes, filled the tummy, but had very little nutritional value. I reflected heavily on the realization that these were foods that I wouldn’t feed my children, or yours. Empty calories and food with nutritional value are different things, and my belief is that just because your family falls on hard times, you shouldn’t pay the extra long-term health price of only having access to unhealthy food.
We are well overdue for a movement focused on nutrition security and I commend recent efforts by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to reshape our focus accordingly. Food security is simply not enough. Children and families who struggle to make ends meet deserve access to nutritious foods, and the latest Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report released just this month illuminates that more is needed. Since 2016, Georgia has seen year-over-year increases in the number of children and teens who are overweight or obese.
HealthMPowers, alongside many partners from the Georgia Departments of Education and Public Health to early care and learning programs, out-of-school time sites, and schools, as well as community partners that include local food banks, Wholesome Wave Georgia, Georgia Organics, Helping Hands to End Hunger, and others, we’re redoubling our efforts to increase education and access to healthy, nutritious foods.
We’re facilitating on-campus food pantries that reclaim unused cafeteria meals for student to take home. We’re empowering student leaders to experiment with innovative ways to cultivate food on school grounds to educate their peers through taste tests that get kids excited and interested in food. And we’re working to make access points to healthy food more convenient for the families and youth we serve statewide through innovative digital tools.
We need to change the trend lines for children’s health. Obesity should not be the most common health condition faced by Georgia children. We have everything we need to reverse those trends, and we commit ourselves every day, through evidence-based programming tailored to children and youth, to do just that. Health should not be a barrier to a child realizing their full potential. And yes, increasing consumption and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, coupled with plenty of time to be active, is critically important. But it also sends a message to our kids, our families, and our communities, that every child is worth the best we can provide.
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