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Published: Thursday, 3/21/2013

ProMedica finds hunger is root of U.S. obesity epidemic

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Randy Oostra, president and CEO of ProMedica, speaks during the Come to the Table: Building a Hunger-Free Region summit at the Toledo-Lucas County Library in Toledo. Randy Oostra, president and CEO of ProMedica, speaks during the Come to the Table: Building a Hunger-Free Region summit at the Toledo-Lucas County Library in Toledo.
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While researching America’s obesity epidemic, one of the region’s largest medical insurers came to the conclusion that bulging waistlines are not simply the result of diets high in fast, greasy food.

The root of the problem, according to ProMedica, is hunger.

Counterintuitive as that sounds, ProMedica is now on a mission to convince people that hunger is more of a widespread and complex problem than what meets the eye.

It has become a public health issue that secretly hits every Ohio household in the pocketbook, probably to the tune of hundreds of dollars a year, company officials said tonight at a community forum ProMedica sponsored at the main Toledo-Lucas County Library. About 75 people attended, many of them executives and officers of service organizations.

“Hunger is a health issue,” according to Randy Oostra, ProMedica president and chief executive officer.

Neighborhoods with the greatest economic plights often have the least access to high-quality nutrition. They have fewer dollars for food, and a lack of transportation to reach supermarkets carrying fresh produce and lean sources of protein. Speakers said it’s easy to understand why those on limited budgets - from single mothers to senior citizens - opt for less-nutritious food, especially when they barely can cover their costs for rent and health care - junk food is  cheaper.

The cost to society, according to Mr. Oostra, can be more uninsured emergency room visits and more public health issues. Studies link poor nutrition to a variety of conditions, including high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, asthma, anxiety, and depression.

Mr. Oostra cited one unidentified Minnesota study that claims hunger-related illnesses have a hidden effect on every state’s economy. The economic impact on a state the size of Ohio likely falls in the range of $1.8 billion to $3.6 billion a year, which breaks down to $400 to $800 more a year per household, Mr. Oostra said.

The important thing, he said, is not zeroing in on the exact figure but understanding the general concept that hunger - whether in the traditional sense or in the over-consumption of empty calories because of poverty - affects everyone’s bottom line.

ProMedica became part of the regional Alliance to End Hunger three years ago because of those correlations, Barbara Petee, ProMedica chief advocacy and government relations officer, said.

“It’s access, not supply, that is the problem in our country,” she said. “It really is an economic issue.”

Hunger affects people in other ways: Studies show malnourished kids are more likely to have developmental delays, more diseases, and both learning and behavioral problems in schools.

According to Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Ohio Association of Foodbanks executive director, they also are five times more likely to commit suicide.

More than one of every five Ohioans cannot afford to buy food without some assistance. Lucas County is one of the state’s leaders for poverty for those 18 years of age or younger, Ms. Hamler-Fugitt said.

According to a research paper by the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, a national coalition of patients, providers, community organizations, health experts, and business and labor groups, more than 50 million people - including almost 17 million children - don’t have the means or access to food that would provide them with proper nutrition. Ohio is higher than the national average. More than 85,000 Lucas County residents - almost one in five - do not get the nutrition they need, the report said.

Among the elderly, malnutrition allows chronic diseases and disabilities to worsen. It decreases resistance to infection, and increases hospital stays, the report said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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