“Drink your milk...and eat your vegetables!”
This is the unyielding cry heard across generations of families in America, a childhood memory for many. But what happens when the closest thing to a fresh vegetable (or fruit) is a soggy tomato atop a sandwich and, instead of a cold glass of milk to drink, there is only a bottle of sugary soda or fruit punch? For individuals and families living under the persistent anxiety of food insecurity, low-nutrition food is often the only resource available. The non-profit Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) cites wide-ranging research showing that lower income neighborhoods often lack access to full-service grocery stores and farmers markets where dairy products and fresh produce are readily available, leaving fast food and convenience store fare as the main source of available foods – sources that often have limitations on nutritious options.
A report released in February entitled "Food Hardship in America" surveyed hundreds of thousands of American households with the question: “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” More than one in six households, or 18.2 percent, answered yes. Alarmingly, over 50 million Americans suffer from chronic food insecurity.
Food banks, a new dietary staple
This evolving landscape of food insecurity has led to an “explosion” of food banks in the United States, says Ross Fraser of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity. Once primarily intended for urgent food needs, food banks are now becoming what Fraser describes as a “new staple” for those without a regular or reliable source of nutritious food.
“Once upon a time, people came to us once in a while for food,” explains Fraser. “Now we are a staple in many people’s lives. People who are in entrenched poverty, people who make low wages and will always make low wages, and especially seniors living on fixed incomes for whom their circumstances are not going to change. And it is also America’s middle class who have lost jobs or are struggling with the economic downturn of the last few years."
"So what we realized is that if we are going to be feeding people on a regular basis, they’re going to rely on us for a significant amount of their nutrition," he continues. "We then have a responsibility to make sure we are getting them the most nutritious food possible.”
While local food banks have traditionally focused on dry goods, Fraser bristles slightly as he describes the common cliché that food banks are often left with the most unhealthy food: “...bags of potato chips, cookies, candy and blah, blah blah.” The reality is that food banks are playing an increasingly central role in helping families get healthier, more nutritious food on their tables.
Children most vulnerable, need dairy
Children are particular vulnerable to food insecurity, and it affects their learning capability and behavior. Neuroscience research indicates the quality of foods children eat impacts cognition—with poor nutrition linked with absenteeism, hunger symptoms and psychosocial problems.