Despite our country’s great wealth and enormous resources, hunger and food insecurity issues are far too pervasive in our society. In fact, nearly one in four children and four in 10 adults live in food insecure households in Santa Barbara County.
While we are fortunate to have innovative community-based programs to feed our hungry friends and neighbors, the need is truly staggering. Yet, those startling figures are rarely talked about. But before we can truly address the problem of hunger in America, we all need to first acknowledge that it’s a problem.
This need for us to start the conversation on food insecurity in our community is why I recently hosted a screening of A Place at the Table, a documentary about hunger in America. Following the screening, a panel of local leaders discussed the magnitude of hunger in our community and some of the innovative ways we are trying to end hunger.
An audience of more than 100 people heard presentations from Jeff Bridges, spokesman for No Kid Hungry; Dr. David Cash, superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District; Erik Talkin, CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County; Kathleen de Chadenedes, director of the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative; and Ben Romo, executive director of Santa Barbara County’s First 5 program.
A Place at the Table goes beyond surface issues and investigates the link between hunger and health issues, such as obesity and chronic health conditions including diabetes. Recognizing this connection is key to improving our food security programs.
With obesity costing our country nearly $200 billion per year, small investments in food literacy could reap significant benefits down the road. Luckily, from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara, projects like the Healthy School Pantry Program are working to empower county residents to stretch their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars farther and eat healthier with the resources they do have. In light of this cutting-edge programming, last year the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County was awarded Feeding America’s “Hunger’s Hope” award.
Another important theme in the film is the unique ability of our schools to set kids up for success through their food policies. I recently participated in a briefing on Capitol Hill with No Kid Hungry about the importance of expanding participation in the federal school breakfast program by allowing students to eat breakfast in class, ensuring that kids are ready to learn. Similarly, we have set up a free school breakfast program, modeled on the school lunch program, for low-income families. However, only 45 percent of kids eligible for the breakfast program are participating. If we could increase that number to 100 percent, it would go a long way to reducing hunger in our children and help them be better prepared for school.
Here on the Central Coast, the Orfalea Foundation has also harnessed the unique position of our schools and done incredible work improving the nutrition of school lunches, through the School Food Initiative. Last year, I visited Adam Elementary School in Santa Maria to see this project first hand. The work being done in our school cafeterias is truly remarkable. Our kids are eating lunches that you’d mistake for a meal prepared in one of the Central Coast’s nicest restaurants, learning the importance of fresh, nutritious food. This experience will set them up to make healthier choices as they grow.
As was highlighted by the panel of local experts who spoke at the screening, there are real reasons for optimism in our community. The innovative public-private partnerships addressing hunger in the county could serve as a national model for how to unite government with nonprofit organizations to more effectively tackle hunger and improve health and nutrition. We are incredibly fortunate in Santa Barbara County to have innovative nonprofit organizations such as the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and the Orfalea Foundation that fill the gaps in federal nutrition programs both in providing healthy food to those in need and improving nutrition education.
In order to improve the long-term health of our country, it’s incumbent upon us to invest not just in feeding our friends and neighbors who are hungry, but also empowering them with food literacy required to lead a healthy life. We clearly have models of how that can be done effectively and efficiently through innovative projects already at work in our communities. It’s time to spread the word so that communities across our nation can benefit from our successes.