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John McMillin: Chain of problems linked to food insecurity

John McMillin • Updated Jul 25, 2017 at 6:00 PM

Having heard presentations from agencies that help people across our 13 county service area, it is obvious that many of our problems are linked. That’s not exactly earth-shattering news; still it always surprises me how some things kick off a chain of events.  

The lack of good nutrition and hunger is one such problem that is linked to many of the problems our local United Way works to reduce.

The focus may seem odd coming from someone like me who suffers from more than a few extra pounds. Much of our public discussion centers on overeating and our expanding waistlines. What we miss is the discussion of the level of hunger in our own backyard.

Hungry people are 2.9 times more likely to be in poor health and have an increased risk of chronic conditions. Surprisingly, they are 2.45 times more likely to be clinically obese as a result of poor nutrition. Hungry children are four times more likely to need professional counseling and, in their teenage years, are five times more likely to commit suicide. Newborns are also at risk and tend to be underweight, which sometimes leads to lifelong chronic and development issues.

Some health care experts estimate healthcare costs linked to hunger at $130.5 billion each year. The breakdown of this cost demonstrates the link to other life problems. For example, hospitalizations cost $16.1 billion of that $130.5 billion bill. We pay out another $29.2 billion for depression, $19.7 billion for suicide while $38.9 billion account for poor health in general.

Ask an educator how hunger affects their school environment. We hear from educators on a regular basis about how children are more likely to feel like they don’t fit in with children who don’t deal with hunger or how grades suffer because concentration drops off in conjunction with a lack of food or nutritionally “good for you” food. 

At United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland, the link we see goes something like this. Hunger equals lack of concentration and behavior problems; this equals failure in school, which equals lack of steady employment and chronic health problems. Finally, we see the end result as more money spent on programs for adults with problems that could have been prevented.

I don’t want to say that fixing these problems is easy, and I will add that we believe individuals have to help themselves wherever and whenever they can. Still, helping our brothers and sisters helps us all. For example, for every $1 spent on food or feeding those hungry souls among us, it is estimated that $50 is saved in Medicaid expenses.

It’s not just a problem with our youth. In 2011, 8.4 percent of homes with seniors were food insecure and this number is expected to increase by 50 percent when our youngest Baby Boomers reach age 60 in 2025. Many of our seniors tell us now that they have to choose between food and medical care or paying utilities.

As we approach another season of giving at UWWUC, please remember the impact your dollars can make during your employee campaign. Ask your employer to consider a United Way campaign. Call our office at 615-443-1871 for more information or visit givetouwwc.org.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at john@givetouwwc.org.

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