There’s no single solution to hunger; we need a community strategy

Hunger and Health: Time for Creative Intervention

Gleaners and the Indianapolis Business Journal convened a gathering of community, health care and education leaders in October to discuss the interconnected issues of hunger, poverty and health. Nearly 300 people attended this inaugural discussion.

Following the breakfast, the speakers and panelists joined to pen a letter highlighting the issues discussed that morning. To join the discussion and stay up to date on key initiatives, click here to visit our Hunger and Health blog. 

There’s no single solution to hunger; we need a community strategy

We’ve all been hungry – the distracting pangs of an empty stomach. For many of us, the cure is as simple as a lunch break, a trip to the refrigerator or to the grocery. But for roughly one in five households across Indianapolis, hunger is commonplace, accompanied by the anxiety of persistent food insecurity. This includes one of every five children who routinely go to bed hungry.

The feeling of hunger is fundamental, but the causes and solutions for hunger in our city are complex.

We came together for a community conversation on hunger, bringing our varied perspectives to a challenge that’s far-reaching and impacts all of us. Hunger is a common denominator to many tough issues that occupy our time, tax dollars and other civic resources, so we want to share our thoughts beyond the audience of a few hundred that heard our discussion in person.

First, there’s the obvious link between hunger and poverty. Since 2000, Indiana’s poverty rate has grown roughly 60% faster than the nation’s. In Indianapolis, the poverty rate has nearly doubled in that time. Earning power has actually declined, as inflation has outpaced wage growth.

So it’s no surprise that new research on food insecurity released by the USDA in September singled out Indiana among a handful of states where hunger is significantly higher than the nation. And Marion County has the highest rate of food insecurity in the state, leading this epidemic of hungry Hoosiers.

But hunger isn’t just pervasive – it’s insidious, impacting nearly every part of our community and making it even more difficult to reverse the dismal trends in poverty.

Take education, for example: Indy ranks 35th out of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in college graduation rate; one of every ten adults in the region lacks even a high school diploma. In a knowledge-driven economy where two-thirds of all jobs will very soon require education beyond 12th grade, this is a prime culprit for Indy’s growing poverty rate.

Hunger sabotages efforts to boost educational attainment and achievement. Children without enough to eat can’t concentrate in the classroom, falling behind their peers; lack of proper nutrition 

slows cognitive development, making learning more difficult for a lifetime. Hunger is also linked to depression, sapping the motivation to study or ability to focus on schoolwork.

In fact, a public health survey in Marion County revealed that almost half of all 18-25 year-olds reported serious bouts of depression in the last month. Hunger and poverty are hobbling our young people.

In addition, chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease are also elevated; families in low-income neighborhoods are often without accessible healthy food options, seeing fast food as a cheap alternative. (Ironically, obesity rates are actually higher among the hungry for this very reason.) All these factors lead to the startling statistic that food insecure households incur $1,800 more in annual healthcare expenses than the average household – costs driven up by emergency care, as they are often forced to choose food over preventative medicine.

Finally, hunger and poverty contribute to crime, especially as more low-income families are crowded into neighborhoods without access to employment and daily necessities like a grocery store. (Since 2000, Indy’s population in areas with poverty rates above 40% has more than doubled, and less than a third of all jobs in the region can be reached from these neighborhoods via public transportation.) The city’s struggles with violent crime are well-documented.

It’s clear that hunger is both a root cause and symptom of so many of the socioeconomic challenges that face our community. There’s a lot of positive momentum in Indianapolis, but our success isn’t sustainable without tackling fundamental issues like hunger: We can’t have one of the nation’s fastest-growing high-tech economies and one of its fastest-growing poverty rates. And we can boast about healthy population growth, but every new resident is matched by another citizen falling below the poverty line.

The list goes on, but the problem keeps growing, too. Proposed federal cuts in food programs like SNAP could dramatically drive up food insecurity and strain non-profits like Gleaners and the healthcare system. We don’t propose to have all the answers, but we can agree that the first step is a coordinated strategy that involves the public, private, and philanthropic sectors at the state, regional and local levels – much like we’ve seen with economic development. Because hunger is an economic issue, as well as an urgent human issue.

Dr. Virginia A. Caine, Director, Marion County Public Health Department

John Elliott, President/CEO, Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana

Dr. Lewis Ferebee, Superintendent, Indianapolis Public Schools

Dr. Paul Halverson, Founding Dean, IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health

Jim Morris, VP, Pacers Sports and Entertainment

Jonathan Nalli, CEO, St. Vincent Health

Troy Riggs, VP, Sagamore Institute