The Connection Between Hunger and Health
In this episode, we’ll explore the connection between hunger and health, poverty and obesity, and the impact of food worry. Welcome to Rights Not Charity. This podcast series is about a big idea, ensuring everyone has enough food, not as a charitable gift, but as a fundamental human right. My name is Christina Wong and I’m the director of Public Policy and Advocacy at Northwest Harvest, a food justice organization and statewide food bank based in Seattle, Washington. Our guest today is Dr. Ben Danielson, a pediatrician with the University of Washington.
Host: Christina Wong, Northwest Harvest
Guest: Ben Danielson, University of Washington
Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center
So my first question for you is we all know that access to good food is a vital component of physical and mental health. Can you help us understand the links between diet and food access and how it affects health?
Well, I guess we have to just start with the basics. Not having enough food, or the right kind of nutrition, at least, leads to serious and often deadly health consequences for so many people across this country and other countries as well. When you don’t have enough calories that just means you don’t have the kind of energy you need for work. It means that if you’re trying to learn, you don’t have the potential to be able to learn effectively. If you don’t have enough calories, you can’t play, and you don’t have life fulfilling activities that are important to you. But it’s not just about not having quite enough calories, it’s also about issues of making sure you have access to the healthiest foods and the right micronutrients.
There are ways in which hunger can be all around you, and you might not realize it, because people might not look like they are underweight or starving. In fact, a lot of people who have nutritional deficits can be overweight and malnourished at the same time. This is the paradox and the painful reality of not having enough food for too many people in North America and Europe. These problems are really linked to the way we think of economic inequality. When a parent is low income, they might struggle to afford fruits and vegetables, and they might go for the higher calorie foods per dollar. But that higher calorie content per dollar may be lower on the nutritional scale. It may not be the right kind of micronutrients. It could lead to someone actually feeling full, but not having a fulfilling diet. This means that again, young people, old people, children are filling their bodies with calories, but not with healthy foods.
If we are part of a nation, part of a continent, part of a globe that cares about making sure that each person can fulfill their potential in the way that they’re supposed to, it really needs to be time for us to rethink the way we talk about food, about the right to food, about access to food. Because it’s more than just nutrients. It’s not enough for a food company, say, to add a few fortifications to their cereal. It’s not enough for a particular product to be enhanced with certain micronutrients. What we need to be doing is really talking about food differently, and talking about body size, and body shape, and body weight differently. We need to have new conversations about access to healthy food, the rights of all of us to get food, the chance for young people to grow and fulfill their biggest dreams because they have healthy diets. And, the obligation that we all have to each other to making sure that we can live our fullest lives.
I just love everything about your answer. I feel like I can really hear the care that you have for your patients in that answer. And speaking of which that paradox about caloric intake, when you’re hungry, that leads me to my next question, which is when it comes to food insecurity and particularly the obesity pandemic, people tend to focus on individual responsibility. We often hear this framed as an issue about people making the wrong choices when it comes to their dietary health. So what is the role of personal choice in the food and health relationship?
I think that’s a really good question. It taps into some of the deeper emotions we might have as a society around issues of food, and weight, and body shape. And it’s important, I think, for us to break down some of those concepts and get into this conversation more honestly and more authentically with each other. One thought that comes to mind for me around this topic is we don’t often talk about access to choices. So we find sometimes that we’re judging people for the way they make choices about food, about other purchases, about other options they make in their lives, when we don’t fully understand what choices they actually have and what choices they don’t have. Sometimes it’s more about the access to choice that drives choices, even unhealthy ones, than it is about how we make personal decisions. And I think we need to step back from that moment of choice and look around about the environment of choice. About the environment of opportunity, and of self agency and of decision making. And really understand how we as a society create options for folks that allow them to really make their fullest lives realized and make their best choices in those moments.
Do you have any examples from your medical experience to clarify that for our audience?
As a pediatrician, I work in a mostly low-income, really culturally rich and diverse community. The relationship of food to reaffirming the connectedness between people in a world and in a society that is often trying to rip people’s connections apart makes for the need, the necessity of actually bringing food into spaces in a way that is reaffirming, reaffirming and demonstrative in powerful ways. That is an important cultural choice as well. And having the opportunity to gather around food, to celebrate with food, to say there is love in this space and we are naming it and claiming it partly by celebrating with food. That makes the idea of food, the choices around food, a little bit different than what calories are going into your body, what is the healthiest versus the unhealthy choice, what is going to be the right micronutrient in this moment. And it brings us into a conversation about food as a celebration, as healing in its emotional form, as part of our memory that is passed on through generations. That is actually important. When that is part of broader society, a broader place of opportunity, then it becomes less important about what happens in those moments of choosing, and becomes much more important about how else we allow people to remember their culture, to know their history, to share their stories, and to be part of generations upon generations, building resources and strength together. That sounds, I know, challenging for some people. Because we want to just focus on this moment of whether or not you picked the vegetable or not, when you had a few different foods to select. But we have to step back from that. We have to think about what is going on that allows this particular food to be meaningful to you, to be a strong memory to you, to make you fight back against maybe the way society is trying to erase your identity.