At first glance, it may seem strange that people with the least access to food would have the biggest problem with obesity, but a significant number of Americans are simultaneously struggling with their weight and food insecurity. In fact, many of the nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children in the United States who are obese are also among the one in seven Americans who do not know where their next meal will come from, and studies have shown that the highest rates of obesity occur among groups with the highest poverty rates.
Most experts believe the somewhat paradoxical link between food insecurity and obesity is because healthy foods can not only be more expensive, but also harder to find where low-income people tend to live. Grocery stores with fresh fruits, vegetables and meats are few and far between in some communities, and people with limited access to full-service grocery stores often resort to eating cheaper prepackaged foods that are high in fat, sugar and calories.
That’s where people like Shannon Loecher, UnitedHealthcare's director of social responsibility programs, enter the picture. “Our social responsibility mission [at UnitedHealthcare] is helping to build healthier communities,” she said. “And tackling the obesity epidemic is definitely a part of that mission.” For the last six years, one way UnitedHealthcare has addressed the obesity epidemic is by partnering with community-based food banks that increase access to fresh, healthy food among the needy.
“We distributed 9 million pounds of fresh foods last year,” said Jaynee Day, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, one of the food banks supported by UnitedHealthcare. “When I started 29 years ago only about 5 percent of what we distributed was fresh, now it’s over 25 percent.”
The increase in the amount of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats provided by Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee, which serves 46 counties in middle and west Tennessee, mirrors a larger trend among food banks. Many are focusing on providing foods that directly address the health issues faced by their clients.
Second Harvest Heartland, another organization supported by UnitedHealthcare, even set up a program for clients in Minnesota and western Wisconsin called FOODRx. The program identifies individuals suffering from certain chronic conditions, and then delivers foods that meet the specific dietary recommendations for the client’s condition. The most common conditions for which the FOODRx program provided food? Diabetes and cardiovascular disease, two conditions strongly linked to obesity.
While not all foods that help treat obesity-related diseases are fresh foods, most physicians agree that a diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables and lean meats is an important part of living well and maintaining a healthy weight. That’s one reason Day’s organization and others like it go to great lengths to get fresh foods to their clients.
“Logistically, getting fresh food to people is a challenge. We distribute more fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before, but that also means we need more refrigerated trucks and drivers,” Day said. “It’s expensive for us, but in the end it’s worth it because it gets healthy food to people who need it.”
Ultimately, getting fresh foods to people in need is a crucial part of addressing America’s ongoing obesity crisis. Because food banks serve a clientele at high risk for obesity, by default they are on the front lines in the fight against the epidemic. Their ability to provide the right types of meals is their most important weapon.