Tamara Sandberg: Hunger and obesity — Kentucky's children plagued by both

Tamara Sandberg is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks.
Tamara Sandberg is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks.

There's a paradox in Kentucky and the rest of the nation: How can people be hungry and obese at the same time?

Kentucky ranks astonishingly high on both measures. Ours was named the sixth-most obese state in the country in last summer's "F as in Fat 2011" report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Even worse, Kentucky was ranked third for childhood obesity, with a whopping 21 percent of children ages 10 to 17 considered obese.

Yet the recent Map the Meal Gap report by Feeding America found that one in six Kentuckians is food insecure, meaning they don't always know where their next meal will come from.

Again, it's worse for children. Almost one in four children in Kentucky lacks consistent access to an adequate diet necessary for an active, healthy life.

Thankfully, we aren't hiding our heads in the sand about one of these issues. According to a poll by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, covered in the May 2 article, a majority of Kentuckians think childhood obesity is a problem. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Encouraging physical activity among children, as is first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, is a great start. So are Farms to School programs and school gardens, which bring fresh produce into school cafeterias.

But we also must take a hard look at the role poverty and hunger play in childhood obesity.

Caregivers who are struggling to make ends meet are confronted with the reality that the least healthy foods tend to be the cheapest. They often have to forgo nutritious options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, in favor of calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food, such as pasta and white bread.

Low-income families who live in neighborhoods without supermarkets stocked with wholesome selections have an additional barrier to getting the kind of food essential to maintaining a healthy weight.

And many parents find themselves lacking the energy needed to cook a nourishing meal at the end of a long day, rather than settling for an easier, but less healthful, option. How much more so for those dealing with the stress of working two jobs and still not being able to pay the rent?

Despite these challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, Kentucky is one of only 12 states that allocates no state funding in support of food bank efforts, such as Kids Cafes or backpack programs, which provide nutritious, kid-friendly foods to children outside of school hours.

In Washington, the House Agriculture Committee recently approved a proposal to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) by nearly $36 billion at a time when the program has never been more urgently needed. We should be guarding and expanding anti-hunger programs, not undercutting them.

Protecting our children from obesity requires more than increased physical activity and access to healthy food at school. It also compels us to do all we can to be sure they aren't coming home to poorly stocked kitchen cabinets. Childhood obesity and hunger are related and real problems in Kentucky — and both are also solvable.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader