Junkfood Science: Thanksgiving Special Edition

November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Special Edition

Warmest wishes to everyone for a happy Thanksgiving!

This is one of the saddest Thanksgivings I can remember. Instead of turkey with all the trimmings, the food news is all about staying trim, the dangers lurking in our Thanksgiving dinners, and how to restrain ourselves from eating lest we get fat or diseased. Good grief. ‘If anything tastes good, it must be bad’ has become the mantra of the day.

Although countless professionals are hyping the dangers of foods to sell weight loss plans, “health and wellness” or “diabetes prevention” programs; or to badger us all to eat whatever and however they believe is best; enjoying the holiday feast is not hazardous to our health. There is simply no good science behind the scares or admonitions.

So for those who haven’t succumbed to the insanity and are still cooking today, you may want to keep this number handy: 1-800-BUTTERBALL and please don’t scrimp on the gravy! :)

No other holiday more beautifully celebrates the tradition of the family dinner. There is comfort in the rituals of Thanksgiving: setting the table with the good china and the family silver, creating a sumptuous feast with everyone’s favorite traditional dishes, smelling the heavenly aromas wafting from the kitchen for hours as anticipation builds, and gathering loved ones around the table to share in the bounty. Our children deserve the same cherished nostalgia. Memories are made and relived each year in the food; the stories told around the table; and the after-dinner parades, footballs games, naps, walks and leftovers! We give thanks for the food and the many hardworking people who have grown, harvested and brought the foods to our tables.

And we give thanks for our many blessings.

Americans give meaning to saying thanks in the spirit of Thanksgiving in truly heartwarming ways. Thanksgiving brings out the good in people. Americans exhibit creditable generosity in sharing food with those less fortunate. Our country supplies more than half of the food aid distributed by the United Nations, said UN Ambassador, Tony Hall. What we give as a country through government, business and as individuals, through churches and temples, is incredible, he said. “It’s something like $56 billion a year.”

We also feel the pain in the reality of food needs in our own country.

In America, hunger is a choice between paying for food at the end of the month and paying for rent or heating or medicine. It is skipping a few meals. It is a Sunday waiting for Monday's school breakfast program. It is eating dry cereal for three days. It is shoplifting. It is being homeless or mentally ill or old....When scientists study short-term hunger in men and women who have not eaten for 36 hours, they see the same areas of the brain light up as when people are thirsty or in pain or fighting for oxygen. — Sharman Apt Russell of Western New Mexico University

Food for thought over this Thanksgiving holiday

In Healthy People 2010, the U.S. Government set an objective of cutting the rate of food insecurity among our country’s households to 6 percent, half the 1995 level, by 2010 and “in so doing, reduce hunger.” In 1995, nationally representative food security surveys estimated that about 12% of U.S. households (11.8 million households) were food insecure, including 4% (4.2 million households) classified as food insecure with hunger.

Hunger and food insecurity mean people are suffering and it has far reaching health consequences. The health; mental, physical growth and emotional development; and futures of children are jeopardized. There are also severe health implications for the elderly. The medically-documented consequences include fatigue, functional decline and diminished mental acuity, delayed wound healing, impaired immune system and increased risks of infection, exacerbated chronic and acute illnesses, depression, loss of muscle strength, falls and increased fractures, longer hospital stays, higher rates of complications and rehospitalization, significantly higher healthcare costs and higher mortality rates. In a recent study in Academic Emergency Medicine, emergency room physicians in Minneapolis found that rates of hunger are high among emergency room patients, with 24% screening positive for hunger. These patients are often forced to make choices that result in ill-health, such forgoing medications in order to buy food.

How has hunger been defined for decades? The Government’s 2002 Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report, Economic Research Reducing Food Insecurity in the United States: Assessing Progress Toward a National Objective said:

Hunger, as measured in food security assessments, refers to “involuntary hunger that results from not being able to afford enough food.”

According to that 2002 update examining the progress on achieving those Healthy People 2010 objectives: “Undernourishment as a result of poverty is rare within the United States, but food security — assured access by all people at all times to enough food for active healthy lives— has not yet been achieved.”

This report described notable improvements during the first 5 years of the effort, however, with food insecurity declining from 11.75 in 1995 to 10.06 in 1999; and hunger falling from 4.15 percent to 2.97 percent. “About half of the reduction ... can be accounted for by improved incomes. Economic growth, with its improvements in employment and income, is essential to improving food security

This month, the most recent update, Household Food Security in the U.S. 2005, was released. Its summary findings were boldly splashed across headlines: “The prevalence of food insecurity declined from 11.9 percent of households in 2004 to 11.0 percent in 2005, while the prevalence of very low food security (their new term for hunger) remained unchanged at 3.9 percent.” An estimated 38 million Americans, 14 million children, currently live in food insecure households.

If we didn’t know where the starting point was, this narrow look at just a one-year change might give the impression that things were moving in the right direction. [Although certainly, taking an even wider viewpoint encompassing the severe hunger of the 1930s and earlier would, too.]

Looking at the actual data in Appendix D, however, gives a different picture. Since the beginning of this initiative, the prevalence of both food insecurity and hunger (“very low food insecurity”) has increased 0.1%. Those earlier improvements have been obliterated and most Americans are slightly worse off than they were in 1995. But there were significant disparities:

Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher for households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households headed by single women with children, and for Black and Hispanic households. Geographically, food insecurity was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburbs, and in the South than in other areas of the Nation....About 22 percent of food insecure households obtained emergency food from a food pantry at some time during the year, and 3.6 percent ate one or more meals at an emergency kitchen in their community.

Looking at the prevalence by state: four states noted statistically significant declines in food insecurity, 15 states had significant increases. And when it comes to hunger, “no state registered a statistically significant decline” and 14 saw significant increases.

New Mexico (with a total population less than 2 million) now leads the nation in food insecurity and hunger, with 16.8% — one in six — suffering low or very low food security (hunger). This past May, Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico released the results of the Faces of Hunger in New Mexico 2005 study. Since 2001, they saw a 38% increase in people seeking emergency food assistance — more than 238,000 each year, including 81,000 children and 21,000 seniors. The numbers of seniors seeking emergency food aid had nearly doubled. Forty-one percent of those served by New Mexico’s food banks said they had to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities or heating fuel. And for 28%, it was a choice between food and medicine or medical care.

“Over one-half of the increase we see are the most vulnerable of our community – children and seniors” said Melody Wattenbarger, Executive Director of Roadrunner Food Bank. Jasmin Milz Holmstrup of the Food Bank told me “an estimated 110,000 people still need our help.”

Note: In the latest New Mexico Selected Health Statistics Annual Report by the State Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, there is no mention of hunger. In Governor Bill Richardson’s State of the State address, which made 2006 the year of the child, among the anti-obesity initiatives targeting junk food and school PE, there was no mention of hunger.

Higher energy costs mean more hunger

The price of being poor in America is having to choose between food and necessities, such as heat and air conditioning. These are life and death tradeoffs, especially for the elderly whose bodies are less able to tolerate extremes of temperature. A study just published in the journal Nutrition looked at food insecurity among low-income households from 1995 to 2001. In hot, humid states, hunger among the elderly poor was 27% higher in the summer than winter.

In cold states, hunger was 43% higher in the winter.

As energy costs rise, many more go hungry, especially the elderly poor and disabled.

The reality of just how many Americans live this precariously was demonstrated in a 2002 study by the Economic Opportunity Research Institute of Wa­shington, D.C. which found about 30% (27.9 million) of U.S. households needed federal energy assistance. Another 7 million households had energy costs disproportionately higher than their income — as high as 30.5% of their income for an additional 2 million households.

The War on Poverty

In our passion to help, it’s easy to believe that more government spending could reduce poverty and hunger long-term. But an analysis just released by the nonpartisan Goldwater Institute made some surprising findings that offer additional considerations. Their results appear to support the recommendations of the 2002 Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report that economic growth, with its corresponding improvements in employment and income, is essential to improving food security in any real and lasting way:

Low-tax and low-spending states enjoyed sizable decreases in poverty rates during the 1990s, while high-tax and high-spending states actually suffered increases in their levels of poverty, says Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute.According to his analysis of poverty rates from 1990-2000, Ladner found:

The 10 states with the highest state spending per capita - Alaska, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming - saw an average increase of 7.3 percent of overall poverty rates and a 4.5 percent increase in childhood poverty.

The 10 states with the lowest spending - Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas - saw overall poverty decline by 11.2 percent and childhood poverty fall 12.2 percent....

The dramatic declines in poverty in the "small government" states strongly confirms the hypothesis that reduced taxes and state spending encourages the emigration of people and businesses to areas where private-sector job growth is able to flourish and become a powerful and effective antipoverty program, says Ladner. And while taxes and business climate alone are not the only factors in reducing poverty rates, they certainly go a long way in helping fight the war on poverty.

Full study here.

Many are looking at the complex problem of ensuring everyone has enough to eat. Despite what would seem intuitively correct, increasing food aid doesn’t mean reducing the numbers of hungry people, according to The State of Food and Agriculture 2006 report for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. It noted that the vast majority of hunger is chronic and unlike acute food insecurity which is best addressed by emergency food aid, chronic hunger requires addressing the roots of hunger: limited poor families’ purchasing power. They concluded:

Emergency food aid and safety nets to ameliorate or prevent acute food insecurity are not sufficient to address the broader problem of chronic food insecurity, hunger and poverty, which pose a far greater challenge that can only be effectively addressed as part of a broader development strategy.

Food is not the resource of choice for interventions needed to help the chronically food insecure into a more secure livelihood.

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