COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Food insecurity isn’t just a problem in developing countries. It can hit close to home.
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis, 16 percent of Ohioans were food insecure at least some time during the year between 2011-2013, compared to a national average of 14.6 percent. Only 11 other states — Arizona, Mississippi, Utah, Texas, North Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky and Nevada — fared worse than Ohio.
“Our numbers are not great. More needs to be done in Ohio,” said Irene Hatsu, who started her position as food security specialist for Ohio State University Extension last year.
OSU Extension is the outreach arm of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
“We’re not talking about people who skip a meal to drop a few pounds,” Hatsu said. “They’re skipping meals because they can’t afford more food.
“They’re skipping breakfast so their kids can have lunch. Coping mechanisms like these indicate a worse food insecurity status.”
People in that situation tend to first find cheap foods that might supply calories but not much nutrition, Hatsu said. That can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health issues.
One way to address the problem is to help people get more out of their limited food dollar — more bang for their buck — by helping them make healthier decisions, said Pat Bebo, leader of OSU Extension’s Community Nutrition Programs.
That’s the focus of two of Extension’s nutrition education programs: SNAP-Ed, for Ohioans who are income-eligible to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and EFNEP, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, for families with children who live on an income of 185 percent of poverty or less. Both programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
SNAP-Ed programs focus on helping people make healthy food choices and to choose an active lifestyle, and are typically delivered in a series of three or more lessons, Bebo said. In the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Ohio SNAP-Ed reached 120,728 Ohioans in the 64 counties that offer the program.
In the 2014 fiscal year, 4,433 Ohio families participated in EFNEP through the 18 counties that offer the program, and 2,757 graduated from the eight-session program, Bebo said. With participating families averaging two children, the program’s impact reached more than 18,000 individuals, she said. EFNEP also offers a youth program consisting of six lessons, reaching 9,190 children and teens in fiscal year 2014.
On the state and county level, OSU Extension is working with other agencies to implement policies to support healthier, more livable communities in the Creating Healthy Communities initiative.
“You really need both individual education and a supportive community environment,” Bebo said. “We can teach people about how important it is to eat more fruits and vegetables, but if they go to their local corner store and can’t find them, that education won’t have much of an impact.
“At the same time, if a community has a healthy living initiative and people see billboards and decals all over the place but don’t really know how to put those things into practice, that program won’t have as much success. We can teach the skills, but people need an environment that supports their ability to practice those skills.”
In the future, Hatsu hopes to expand OSU Extension’s reach into food-insecure communities.
“Right now, we’re using a one-size-fits-all approach to address food insecurity in Ohio, which I don’t think is providing the needed results,” Hatsu said. “If we can find specific causes for food insecurity for specific populations and tailor interventions specific to those populations, I think that might be more helpful.
“We need to find a solution to the food insecurity problem, and that goes way beyond giving someone some food.”