COMMENTARY: Helping our community’s hungriest neighbors

It doesn’t say “hunger” on the death certificate, but our neighbors are suffering and even dying from lack of access to healthy food.

In Guatemala, I met children who lived on mostly corn, a plentiful food source but with limited nutritional value. They get enough calories but lack fresh fruits and vegetables. When compared with children who lived in a nearby city with access to better food, these children were malnourished and much less healthy.

Sadly, we see some similar disparities here in Montgomery County.

In recent health rankings, Montgomery County was 80th out of 88 counties in Ohio for premature deaths. We lost 11,000 years of potential life due to preventable diseases and did poorly on other measures too, such as adult obesity, infant mortality and diabetes

Countless studies have shown a connection between lack of access to affordable healthy food and an increase in several serious diseases. Getting enough to eat is just a start.

To improve community health we need to work on three areas – access, affordability and education.

Access: Eating healthy is easier said than done for many of our citizens. Ten percent of our residents have limited access to healthy food, the highest percentage of any urban county in Ohio. That’s more than 50,000 people and a health emergency.

When Gem City Market opens next year on Salem Avenue, it will be vital green oasis in Dayton’s largest food desert. As a locally owned and operated co-op, it’s committed to serving the needs of the community with an emphasis on local and fresh food. But not everyone will be able to get there; it’s vital we pursue additional strategies to improve access, such as:

Healthier food at neighborhood stores. Programs to provide incentives and support for small stores adding fresh food have proven successful. Our Public Health Department has made some efforts in this area, recognizing that convenience is vital.

Pop-up stands and farmers markets in parking lots of churches, low income housing and shopping centers.

On-line ordering for SNAP recipients. Currently, SNAP regulations prohibit recipients from ordering online at grocery stores and from the option of home delivery. On-line ordering and home delivery is a great way to get access to the variety offered by big suburban stores.

A ffordability: Access doesn’t mean much to those who can’t afford the food. SNAP supplements the food budget for 70,000 people in Montgomery County, many of them children or working adults. A program known as Produce Perks makes produce more affordable for SNAP recipients. It matches SNAP dollar for dollar for fresh produce, allowing families to purchase twice as much healthy food. Unfortunately, it’s only available at a few farmers’ markets in Montgomery County. Increasing locations and awareness will help.

Education: We also have to help people understand the importance of making the right eating choices. Health begins at the dinner table, not the doctor’s office. Local hospitals are recognizing this and screening patients for nutritional needs and even sending food home with discharged patients when needed. Additionally, educational efforts aimed at pre-schoolers have helped shape healthy eating habits with lifelong benefits.

Thanks to the efforts of the Dayton Foodbank, United Way, the Montgomery County Human Services Levy, hospitals and many others, we have made great strides in feeding those who are hungry in our community.

We need to build on that success and ensure that our neighbors get the fresh, nutritious food they need to live long and healthy lives.

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Ambassador Tony Hall, former member of Congress and ambassador to UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture, is the founder of the Hall Hunger Initiative, a local hunger education and advocacy organization. Learn more at hallhunger.org.

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