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A Double Whammy




For people who are food insecure, dinnertime can mean double trouble.
It’s hard to provide enough food to feed their families. But it’s even tougher to provide food that is healthy, especially for those people who live in areas that don’t offer access to fresh goods.
Faced with tough choices, they often must eat unhealthy food. It’s a trap Leader Geraldine Henchy is working to eliminate.
“The same factors that come down on all of us in terms of overweight and obesity, which is caused by less physical activity and eating more food… there’s even more pressure if you’re talking about families that are living in poverty,” says Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food
Research and Action Center (FRAC). “Everything is magnified and the ability to make choices is constrained.”
A registered nutritionist, Henchy entered the public health world to help bring good, healthy food to low-income communities. She’s now among the leading experts working on the seemingly opposite problems of obesity and hunger, which together most often affect low-income communities. 
FRAC’s main mission is to combat hunger. But as Henchy notes, hunger and obesity often co-exist.
Low-income or impoverished people often live in “food deserts.” While these places tend to have plenty of fast-food restaurants serving up unhealthy healthy foods and beverages, they generally lack places that provide access to affordable healthy food. Residents might skip meals in order to save money, but that leads to overeating when they do get food, which in turn contributes to weight gain, Henchy says. 
Opportunities for physical activity also are extremely limited. Food insecure people don’t often have access to a gym (and might not be able to afford one even if they did). For many others, their neighborhood might lack parks, bicycle paths and other outdoor spaces — and might not even be safe enough to go for a brisk walk, Henchy says.
“It’s a whole series of things,” Henchy adds. “That’s why FRAC is interested. We think it’s important to give people tools and give them the resources, and work with other allied groups, to help these families escape this trap.”
While fast food is abundant in low-income communities, residents often lack access to fresh produce. That leads to high rates of obesity and hunger, experts say.
Low-income mothers are particularly hard-hit, Henchy notes, because most moms will always make sure their kids get enough to eat before themselves. That means that mothers often eat whatever they can, putting them at greater risk for obesity. In doing so, their children also are put at greater risk, as studies have shown maternal obesity is a strong predictor of childhood obesity. 
But mothers often don’t have much of a choice in what they feed their kids. Henchy recalled that several years ago, she worked for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). During that time, she met with one mother, and advised her to serve her family more fruits and vegetables. The woman started crying.
“She said, ‘I can’t afford fruits and vegetables.’ So I started crying,” Henchy says. “I thought, ‘We aren’t giving her any.”
Many organizations have made strides to help bring healthier food to low-income communities, especially with the WIC program, Henchy notes. WIC officials around the country now work hard to produce fresh produce and whole grains to program participants (we wrote about some of those efforts last week). 
FRAC also has partnered with obesity groups on the recent overall of the school lunch program, which led to the soon-to-be-implemented Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That work will ensure children will be fed healthy food in school, and will be a huge help to families, Henchy says.
But there is still much work to be done, and part of that will involve changing people’s perceptions about obesity, Henchy notes.
“Sometimes, people want to do something about obesity… that involves them telling someone to do something, and saying they’re bad and shaming them or taking things from them,” Henchy says. “FRAC is not in favor of that. If we see that you have these mothers who are in that trap in those neighborhoods, just to tell them, ‘you should do better’ — they’re not short on that information.”