The following editorial appeared in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat on Monday:
South Carolina’s youth have the second-highest obesity rate in the nation, according to the latest report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
More than 21 percent of young people in the state between ages 10 and 17 are considered obese. Obesity is defined as an excessively high amount of body fat compared to lean body mass.
For South Carolina, a state whose population already ranks high nationally for health problems, doing something about obesity is a primary issue for human well-being and the economy. That is being addressed through new emphasis by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental.
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But in South Carolina and around the country, there is another problem that may come as a surprise to many: 20 percent of American children are going hungry. Sixteen million children live in households that struggle to afford food, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The problems are not unrelated, as poor diet can be a factor in both obesity and hunger.
“We hear about ‘food insecurity' quite a bit, especially after the 2008-09 economic crash, but I think most people don’t have a clear picture of what that means,” says Lois Brandt, a former Peace Corps volunteer and author of “Maddi’s Fridge,” (MaddisFridge.com), a children’s picture book that asks the question: what do you do if your best friend’s family doesn’t have enough food?
“Food insecurity means an empty refrigerator. Food insecurity means soda instead of milk. Food insecurity means a child coming to school hungry and unable to focus.”
Poverty may not look exactly the same in our country as it does in a war-torn region or a developing country, but it is affecting our children and their futures, she says. Sometimes, working parents have to choose between rent and food, medicine and food, or gas and food.
Brandt suggests four things you can do to help prevent childhood hunger:
• Support non-profit food network organizations .
• Talk to your children about childhood hunger and how they can help. “When I was a child I opened my best friend’s refrigerator to get a snack and was shocked to see it held almost nothing,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Rather than sheltering your children from this sad fact of American life, talking to them about it can help nurture their compassion and empathy,” she says. “And there’s plenty they can do to help, from making posters to raise awareness, to organizing a food drive at school.”
Taking action teaches children that they do have the power and ability to change the world for the better.
• Don’t make childhood hunger a political issue. Of course, childhood hunger doesn’t exist in a vacuum; issues like welfare, minimum wage, income inequality and access to health care – all of which are heavily politicized – surround the problem. Whatever your take on these topics, realize that no matter the decisions a parent has made in his or her lifetime, children are innocent and have no control of their family’s circumstances.
• Volunteer with your family at a shelter or food pantry during the busy holiday season. While serving or cooking food for a holiday-themed meal at a shelter during Thanksgiving or Christmas does not solve the larger problem, it will affect every person whose life you touch that day. Your efforts and kind words can become a fond, lifelong memory for a child, or remind adults that others care and they’re not alone.
Volunteering also has personal benefits, not the least of which is knowing that, despite whatever problems you’re facing, you were able to help someone else.