April 14, 2013

Our View: Hunger isn’t getting the attention it should

The state needs to recognize that tackling food insecurity has many additional benefits.

The stock market has recovered. Home prices are starting to recover and jobs numbers are creeping back, if at a glacial pace.

click image to enlarge

Volunteer George Coburn helps Eleanor Locey of Saco select groceries at the Saco Food Pantry last month. Churches and nonprofit aid agencies are facing unprecedented demand for help from people who can’t afford to feed themselves adequately.

2013 File Photo/John Patriquin

But for many Mainers, the Great Recession of 2008 has never ended.

If you were poor before the recession, you probably still are. If you were middle-income in 2008, you are lucky if your wages have been stagnant over the last five years. Many have lost ground and are forced to make do with less than they had before.

This is the story being reported by the food pantries and soup kitchens in every corner of the state, even the areas that appear to be the most prosperous.

People who can’t afford to feed themselves adequately are turning to churches and nonprofit aid agencies for help, putting unprecedented demand on their services. Many of the people looking for help are those who earn too much to qualify for food stamps and other government services.

Maine ranks first in New England for having the highest population of people who have uncertain access to adequate nutrition, a condition known as “food insecurity.” That affects 17 percent of households, or about 200,000 people.

Hunger and poverty contribute to many of our state’s deepest and most intractable problems. Hungry children can’t focus in school, and just being low-income is itself a risk factor for a variety of medical problems, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer and depression. All are aggravated by poor nutrition.

Paradoxically, low-income people are three times as likely to be obese as those at the top of the income scale, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. That also can be related to food insecurity.

People who miss meals and overeat are more likely to store excess energy as fat. In many cases, food that is low in nutrition but high in calories is less expensive or more available than higher-quality fare that is less fattening.

Generous Mainers should keep supporting the food banks and other organizations that try to meet the need, but charity alone is not enough.

The state should treat hunger as the public health problem that it is. That means getting nutritious food to people who need it, whether they qualify for public assistance or not.

The recession needs to end for everyone. Maine cannot keep ignoring that far too many of us don’t have enough to eat.

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