Steps to Building a Healthier World

By Jessica Sorensen

Food scarcity, food insecurity, food deserts... and obesity?

One in three Americans is obese, but at the same time, many Americans don't have access to the amount or kinds of food necessary for humans to be healthy, according to Jean Ann Fischer, a registered dietitian and assistant extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

According to Fischer, researchers are realizing that there's enough energy, or calories, available to people, but perhaps not the right amount of nutrients for health.

"There's a paradox that we start to see as far as how can we be having rising levels of obesity, yet we still say that maybe there's an issue with people not having access to food," Fischer said. "That's where that food security definition comes in, in terms of do they have access to healthy, safe, nutritious food and what the difference might be."

Fischer said her definition of food scarcity is not having enough food available. However, she said in terms of a domestic problem, people in America have more of a problem with food insecurity. According to Fischer, food insecurity occurs when food is available, but residents might not have access to it. "Access" might include the inability to pay for food or inability to get to a store to buy it.

Food scarcity isn't so much of a domestic issue right now, but it's definitely more of a global issue, she said. Fischer, who is with the UNL Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences Nutrition Education Program, works with educators and assistants who counsel individuals and families on ways to access and prepare safe, healthy food not only for their daily health, but also to help prevent diseases such as diabetes. Fischer said it is getting people to change the habits that can be a barrier, but the key is in finding what's important to them.

Healthy eating, healthy life

Fresh tomoatoes and produce at produce standAccording to Fischer, the starting point is addressing basic human needs, such as air, water, sleep and food.

"If you don't have those, you can't move on to the next level. So food in that sense is just a basic survival mechanism we need," she said.

Fischer said some people might look at it as not only meeting basic hunger needs, but being instrumental in their lives for preventing illness and disease and reaching a higher quality of life.

Food deserts: another barrier

Fischer said a food desert is not having access to safe and healthy food within a reasonable distance. Much of Nebraska qualifies as a food desert, according to the USDA, as does much of rural America.

According to Fischer, researchers are looking at locating food deserts to identify areas where residents don't have a grocery store within a mile radius, or if there is a grocery store, it doesn't contain safe and healthy food.

Fischer said hunger can sometimes occur because of food deserts.

"If they're in a situation where they don't have transportation and they're 60 miles from the nearest grocery store, how do you get regular, reliable access to safe food?" she said.

In addition, Fischer said researchers have seen a rise in the elderly population struggling to keep food on the table due to rising costs of medical care. She said newly-immigrated residents also have problems with having enough food because they are struggling to find stable employment.

Obesity, lifestyle issues

Fischer said the difference between someone who is obese versus someone who is healthy can depend on daily lifestyle or area where he or she lives.

According to Fischer, a person could think about the causes of obesity as consuming too many calories and not having a balance with burning off those calories.

However, she said a person's lifestyle could affect the ability to work off the calories. For example, if a job requires a person to sit at a desk all day, that person won't burn as many calories as someone whose job requires constant movement.

Also, having a safe environment to be able to go out and exercise is another aspect.

"There's some socio-cultural issues there that if we can provide more communitybased feelings of safety for people to have safe access to increasing their physical activity levels, that will certainly help," Fischer said.

Global collaboration for a healthier world

"At a community level we're seeing more collaboration between all of the different departments, whether it's at the university level, the physician's office, the schools or the Department of Health and Human Services," Fischer said. "If we can get everybody kind of working together on all of those issues and really taking that integrated approach, but yet starting at the family level and the community level and hitting all of the different phases, we'll start to see some improvements."

According to Fischer, this integrated approach can play a crucial role in addressing the nutrition issue globally.

"It's definitely going to need an integrated approach," she said. It will require a broad look at policies, distribution issues and education issues. "It's not just a 'providing food' aspect," she said.


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