It’s called the poverty-obesity paradox.
“When you see these overweight people, they can actually be hungry as well,” said Cindy Greenstein, executive director of the Louisiana Food Bank Association. “People go for the bulk. It’s not about gluttony, it’s about what foods are less expensive.”
Louisiana perennially ranks among the fattest states in the nation, but that ranking masks what some say is a more insidious problem: food insecurity.
The USDA’s definition of food insecurity is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
In other words, someone is food insecure when they don’t know where their next nutritious meal is coming from.
About 760,000 Louisianans fit into that category, according to the Minding the Meal Gap survey conducted by Feeding America in 2010. That’s 16.7 percent of the population.
In some parishes, it’s higher. Orleans Parish, for example, had a 20.6 percent food insecurity rate, which translates to 295,285 people. In East Baton Rouge Parish, the number was lower — 16.2 percent or 70,800 people.
The statistics among vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, are particularly sobering. In Orleans Parish, the child food insecurity rate is 20.9 percent, meaning 13,080 were food insecure.
For East Baton Rouge, the percentage was 17.8, or 18,280 children.
In south Louisiana, the problem isn’t a lack of food, experts said, it’s a lack of the right kinds of food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
“We’ve got to change the discussion from a basic need, ‘Oh, these poor people need food,’ ” said Mike Manning, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.
“We need for these people to be educated. We need these people to eat right so they don’t affect the public health system. We need to find ways to help solve the problem and look at it from the perspective that it’s a broader issue than food.”
Manning points to education, or a lack of it, as a large part of the reason Louisiana is dogged by poverty and its attendant food security issues. And though the country’s battling tough economic times, Manning said in Louisiana, the issue is chronic, not the fault of a recession.
“It’s just basically poorly educated people with poor opportunities to advance,” he said.
Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, which covers 23 parishes in New Orleans and Acadiana, agrees the recession has little to do with Louisiana’s hunger problems.
“We had our recession in 2005 (with Hurricane Katrina),” she said. “For us, that was just a cutoff point for everything in the state.”
For New Orleans, however, the storms also brought an opportunity for change in the form of resources — funding, organizations and volunteers — that weren’t previously there. Jayroe said a Fresh Food Financing program, for instance, used disaster Community Block Grant Funding to bring retailers into communities that lack access to full-service grocery stores.
The storm also brought Share Our Strength, a national organization that fights childhood hunger in America , to New Orleans.
Rhonda Jackson, the organization’s No Kid Hungry New Orleans campaign director, said the amount of work needed to help the city rebuild has kept the group, which normally runs a statewide effort, confined to the New Orleans area. The city’s recovery efforts are a daily challenge.
“Here, we have to talk to every individual charter school, charter school board, and sometimes they change over time,” she said. “There’s no centralized data source, contact information, those types of things.”
Jackson also pointed to the poverty-obesity paradox as a challenge to getting school administrators to recognize the hunger problem.
“A lot of school administrators see a lot of overweight kids in their schools and aren’t making the link between obesity and poverty,” she said. “In 2011, we were ranked eighth as a state in child hunger. They’re overweight because they’re eating chips and soda for breakfast instead of a balanced meal.”
Jackson said that imbalance and the resulting hunger can cause problems in schools. Children who are hungry, she said, have trouble learning and may also have behavioral problems. Manning, of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, agreed.
“If kids go to school hungry, they’re less likely to learn,” he said. “They have more trouble paying attention and are more likely to be a behavior problem.”
Which, he said, leads to poor performance in school and fewer opportunities to advance in life.
“For us to break this cycle of chronic poverty, we have to get these children to the point where they’re able to learn,” he said.
Statewide, Louisiana is famed for its food culture, which is not always healthy, but can provide a good foundation for fixing the food insecurity problem.
“We like food and have a reverence for food and people will try things. People will embrace a different, healthier lifestyle,” Second Harvest’s Jayroe said. “We aren’t so far removed from cooking that we can’t relearn those things. It just takes time.”
But what makes the food insecurity problem particularly complicated here is that each community’s needs are different, sometimes drastically so.
In southwest Louisiana, for instance, Jayroe said finding adequate transportation is difficult. In other areas, like the food deserts that dot Baton Rouge, access to fresh, nutritious food is the problem.
So, the experts said, the best place to start fixing the problem is at the community level, where answers can be crafted to serve a particular group’s tastes and needs.
Carrie Castille, the associate commissioner for governmental affairs and a science adviser for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said regional solutions are key because the policymakers understand the dynamics within the community.
“You cannot take the strength away from what happens in the region,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, local solutions allow an area’s food producers to get involved and share what they grow with communities in need.
“If we’re going to address food insecurity, you also want to have a strong local farming economy,” she said.
Castille stressed the importance of passing on farming skills and a connection with fresh, local-grown foods to Louisiana’s youth.
“I really think you have to start at the lowest level, when you’re a child,” she said.
Second Harvest focuses some of their food literacy efforts on children. One of its programs, Nine a Day the Head Start Way, introduces fruits and vegetables to Head Start students.
“They’ll spend the week learning about apples, for instance,” Jayroe said. “They’ll spend the week learning about different kinds of apples, how nutritious they are; they’ll make songs about apples.”
Then the students will take home a 5-pound bag of apples with apple recipes. Surveys show the diet at home almost always changes for the positive, Jayroe said.
In Baton Rouge, Manning said that his food bank mainly focuses on distribution, but there are programs to send backpacks of food home with children on the weekends and partner agencies do food literacy instruction.
One such program is SNAP-Ed, which provides education for people who are recipients of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps — and for those who are eligible for such aid.
De’Shoin York-Friendship works with the program through the Southern University AgCenter. Every quarter, the program makes contact with 30,000 people, be it in a home visit, at a clinic or community center, or through handouts, to educate them about eating better with their SNAP benefits.
She said that this year, her program is specifically targeting women and children.
“When you get the kids to buy in, they drive the parents,” she said.
The road ahead
Second Harvest’s Jayroe sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“I do think we’re making progress. I really do,” she said. “I think we’re getting better.”
She described that, in a perfect world, government, for-profit industries and nonprofits would work together in a “three-legged stool” to support thriving communities “that support each other well enough so that people do not have to be frightened that they don’t have enough to eat.”
Jayroe points to recent positive national news in education and health, like a recent study finding obesity declining among lower-income children, as evidence that food insecurity is not an insurmountable problem. And she thinks Louisiana, with its unique culture and devoted populace, has a real shot at defeating hunger once and for all.
“I think that sometimes we sell ourselves short as a state, as a community, as a country because some of our national dialogue is so negative right now,” she said. “There are so many positive partnerships that are being built. As a state, we’ve faced a lot of hardship over the past eight years and out of those tragedies, a lot of positives have taken root.”
“I don’t know anyone that lives in the state that doesn’t love this state with all their heart,” she added. “I’ve never seen the kind of love of place that I’ve seen here.”