Hungry and Hungrier
By Stett Holbrook
'I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks," said President Bush of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il. North Koreans are starving to death. North Korea is a mountainous country poorly suited to growing its own food. Only 18 percent of the country is arable, and many North Koreans reportedly supplement their meager diets with grasses, tree bark, seaweed and other foraged foods.
But the plight of America's hungry begs a closer look at our own situation. In spite of our nearly boundless agricultural productivity and wealth, we are facing our own hunger crisis. A report released this month by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that more than 2.9 million low-income adults in California lack the means to put food on the table, making them "food insecure." Almost 900,000 suffer from episodes of hunger. County rates of food insecurity vary from 20.4 percent to a high of 45.2 percent and rates of hunger range from 3.7 percent to 21.1 percent. In Sonoma County, some 78,000 adults of the 353,000 total live in low-income households, and a full third of those (33 percent) are what the study sees as food insecure. Of the 94,000 adults in Napa County, 24,000 are low-income and 41.9 percent of them are food insecure. And while 2003 figures for Marin County weren't tracked, the study figures that of the 188,000 adults in Marin, 26,000 are low-income; in 2001, 21.8 percent of them didn't know where the next meal was coming from. And in California overall, 33.9 percent of the 8 million–plus low-income adults are in danger of constant hunger.
Meanwhile, new reports show that an increasing number of children in this country show signs of malnutrition, while junk-food-fueled obesity rates are on the rise. Obesity is often related to malnutrition. In 2003, 11.2 percent of families in the United States experienced hunger, compared with 10.1 percent in 1999, according to the most recent official figures, released on National Hunger Awareness Day held this year on June 7. Going hungry, or more commonly, eating poor-quality food, has a dramatic effect on the body that is especially pronounced in children.
"The issue isn't lack of food," says Lillian Castillo, a public-health nutritionist who serves a mainly Latino clientele. "It's the quality of food."
Castillo works with schools that have children at high risk of poor nutrition. Many of the families she sees live off fast food and prepackaged foods that can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Studies link poor diet and hunger at an early age to aggressive behavior, Castillo says. School-age children suffering from poor nutrition are at a considerable disadvantage. "If your body is not healthy, your mind isn't prepared to learn."
When Mexican and Central American immigrants first arrive in the States, their diets are relatively good, says Castillo. It's only when they become accustomed to life in America and are bombarded by advertising that their diet suffers. Cooking knowledge that was once passed from parent to child is sometimes lost. "Among Mexican Americans the quality of diet decreases with acculturation," she says. "[The question is] how to become acculturated and not lose the positive qualities in our diets." Castillo says she focuses on teaching clients about better sources for food, increasing their nutritional knowledge and helping them to be more critical, savvy consumers.
Before Bush casts any more stones at North Korea for starving its citizens, he ought to take a long look in the mirror. North Koreans can blame their hunger and suffering on a cruel dictatorship and geographic misfortune. What's our excuse?
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.