Any word association involving obesity will quickly throw up the word ‘America’. It was in the US where obesity was first seen in epidemic proportions and it was in the US that fast food, Coca Cola and super-sizing originated. It is the gold standard of an obesogenic environment with a cheap and abundant food supply and, of course, most of its urban sprawls actively promote the car over shank’s mare. The concern over obesity begins with the First Lady herself and embraces all elements of US health policy. But within that obesogenic environment lies hunger and lots of it. Even the obese can be hungry.
The story of hunger in modern US can be traced back to 1967 when the US Senate Select Committee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty moved its hearings from Washington to a heartland of unemployment in Jackson, Mississippi, in April, 1967. The testimony that they received was dominated by stories of hunger and starvation and the stories told were so unbelievable as to persuade the young Senator Robert Kennedy to travel to the countryside to see for himself the truth or otherwise. The story is told in the book: “Toward an end to hunger in America” by Peter Eisinger. The young Senator was shocked.
Robert Kennedy, sitting beside a seriously undernourished child was reported as saying: “My God. I didn’t know this sort of thing existed. How can a country like this allow it? Maybe they just don’t know”. A journalist George Lapides who accompanied the Senator Journalist described the scene thus: “And I saw Senator Kennedy, who was dressed in a beautiful pinstripe, charcoal-gray suit, sitting on a dirt floor with a child about 18-months old with a distended stomach. Senator Kennedy had him sitting on his lap and tears were coming down Senator Kennedy’s eyes.” The Senator wrote to the White House in frank language: “….. conditions of malnutrition and hunger that can only be described as shocking”. This prompted a delegation of medical experts to visit the region funded by the Field Foundation who reported back on a serious problem of hunger and malnutrition in terms such as: “…..listless children who lived on nothing but grits, bread and Kool-aid”. Shortly after, The Citizens Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition, issued a report “Hunger in the US”. Ultimately it was the new powerful medium of television which brought this to the full gaze of the US through a CBS documentary “Hunger in America. This led the US Senate to establish a “Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs” chaired by Senator George McGovern who would lose a presidential race to Richard Nixon but who with Senator John Dole would receive the World Food Prize for their contribution to the fight against global hunger and malnutrition.
The Senate Select Committee’s work eventually led to a raft of food and nutrition aid programmes in the US, which persist today, programmes such as WIC, the Women, Infants and Children Scheme of food aid or the Summer Food Service Programme and many other intervention programmes. It also led Washington to establish an annual survey of food security, which is defined by the UN as ”When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. It’s most recent report, issued just six months ago estimates that in 2010, some 15% of US households were food insecure meaning that at some stage, food on the table was not a given. For some, 5%, food on the table was a very unpredictable event. The USDA uses income as a means of determining food insecurity but in 2010, the NGO Feeding America took a more in-depth approach, which matched food expenditure with food prices and income. Feeding America undertook the Map the Meal Gap project, with the generous support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company, to learn more about the face of hunger at the local community level. “The results indicate that no county is free from food insecurity. Counties ranged from a low of 5% of the population that experienced food insecurity in 2009 to a high of 38%”. In California the county of Los Angeles had 1.7 million hungry homes (17.4%) while between them, 5 boroughs of New York had 1.3 million hungry houses (16.2%). Thus in 2 of the most iconic of US cities, one in six families suffers from the uncertainty of the next meal.
Without question, obesity remains a massive public health programme with considerable social and economic costs. But so too is hunger and it never hits the headlines because it is a blight, a national shame. Lest any reader outside the US cast their eyes to heaven at yet another injustice in the US, ask yourself if in your country there is an active programme to actually document hunger and to fight it. At least the US does, thanks in no small way to Robert F Kennedy.