Developing strategies to end hunger

A Healthy and Hunger-Free Toledo

Until recently, I knew little about Toledo, Ohio, beyond that it’s a Rust Belt city struggling to reinvent itself like so many others. One thing Rust Belt cities have in common is a shockingly high percentage of people struggling to put food on the table.  According to the most recent data available, in 2011 Toledo’s child poverty rate was 43.7 percent. I’m sad to report that in the Rust Belt, even a statistic such as 43.7 percent of all children living in poverty doesn’t stand out as exceptionally high.

Since my visit to Toledo last week, though, I also think of the city as on the leading edge of anti-hunger policy at the local level. Toledo’s idea is to “rebrand” hunger as the health problem it is. The rebranding is designed not to replace the concept of hunger as a problem fundamentally rooted in poverty, but to help people in the community consider solutions that are part of health care rather than “welfare.”

At Bread for the World, it’s common to hear colleagues ask each other some version of the question “Why do Americans tolerate large numbers of people going hungry when this is a rich country?”  One of the key answers is the way the problem is defined. If we talk about hunger only as an extension of poverty – even though this is true – it’s much easier to think of it as a personal problem that people need to solve themselves.  It’s not society’s responsibility.  The results can be seen in ordinary conversation:  while many people consider it perfectly acceptable to excoriate “welfare recipients,” it’s almost never okay to make similar derogatory remarks about patients with chronic health problems.

PhiladelphiaI once asked a doctor why she thought there is so little stigma attached to WIC (which provides extra nutrition for infants and young children) compared to SNAP (food stamps). She believes it’s because WIC includes health care checkups, leading the mothers who participate to see it as something completely different from “charity” or “welfare.” The public views it differently as well.

The largest healthcare provider in Toledo, ProMedica, is leading the effort to rebrand hunger.  ProMedica is a partner in the Hunger Free Communities Network, a nationwide platform for coalitions, campaigns, and collaborations committed to ending hunger in their localities. Once a year, the network holds a summit in Washington, DC, so its members can learn from each other and share their knowledge and experience. The next summit will take place this Saturday, March 2.  

ProMedica provides comprehensive healthcare services in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. It also happens to be the largest employer in the Toledo region—so it has a certain amount of clout with policymakers. In fact, my first scheduled meeting with ProMedica had to be postponed because the governor of Ohio, on the eve of his State of the State address, turned to the organization for information to include. This type of credibility will be important to Toledo’s success in changing the way people think about hunger.  

ProMedica is bent on getting the governor, mayors around the region, and Ohio’s members of Congress to understand the impact of hunger on health outcomes and on healthcare costs – and therefore, why ending hunger should be one of their top priorities. As an economic engine in the community, ProMedica can not only explain why an undernourished workforce is a less productive workforce, but also speak knowledgably about the damage done to economic development.

ProMedica realizes that part of what it must do is to educate its own employees. I got to watch a presentation to hospital staff on how to recognize symptoms that could stem from hunger and how to screen patients on food and nutrition issues. ProMedica’s work is just beginning, so it’s too early to draw conclusions about its effects on reducing hunger in the community, but the initiative has already captured the attention of national leaders. This fall, ProMedica plans to co-convene a national conference on “hunger as a healthcare issue” with the Alliance to End Hunger, an affiliate of Bread for the World and the Institute. Healthcare providers from around the nation will be invited; ProMedica hopes that others may follow its lead.


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