The seeming opposites of hunger and obesity are simply two sides of the same coin – poverty – and America can put an end to both childhood epidemics if we simply find the political will, speakers at the Colorado Children’s Campaign annual luncheon said Wednesday.

The event brought together more than 800 community and business leaders, child advocates and lawmakers for a discussion on childhood hunger, obesity and poverty.

Bill Shore

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the crowd, as did U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Chris Watney, Children’s Campaign executive director. But the highlight of the afternoon was a conversation with two nationally-recognized hunger and social justice experts, Bill Shore and Angela Glover Blackwell.

Shore is founder and executive director of Share Our Strength and the author of four books, including his most recent, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, the story of social entrepreneurs who achieved things previously thought unattainable.

Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization, and a pioneer in new approaches to neighborhood revitalization. She is chair of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.

Angela Glover Blackwell

Colorado stats dismal

In Colorado, the number of children living in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – one of every six in the state – lived in poverty, according to the 2011 Kids Count survey. Meanwhile, the number of children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent of all Colorado children. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.

As poverty rates in Colorado have shot up, so has childhood obesity. While the state had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003, Colorado ranked 10th by 2007, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese. That’s the second-fastest rate of increase in the nation.

The link between increasing rates of poverty and increasing rates of obesity is clear. Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

And things are only getting worse.

“An undercurrent in this conversation is that poverty is at levels we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” Shore said, noting that recent estimates show that half of all children today will receive some form of public assistance at some point during their childhood. “People are not really addressing this issue of poverty at a time when income inequality is at its greatest level.”

Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation with Blackwell and Shore.

Blackwell added: “Let’s not act like we can’t solve this problem. If we had the political will, we could solve it. But just focusing on programs to get more cash into the household won’t be enough. We have to create sustainable pathways out of poverty.”

“Show me a problem, and I can lift up five or six programs to fix it,” she said. “But what I try to get people to really focus on is how to weave those programs into a strategy that is a systematic way to move people out of poverty.”

Shore agreed, noting that it’s not a lack of anti-hunger programs – or even a lack of food – that causes kids to go hungry.

“Kids are hungry and they are obese because they lack access to healthy food,” he said.

Poor neighborhoods lack healthy food options

Often, families living in poor neighborhoods don’t have easy access to full-service grocery stores and must eat what’s available at convenience stores and fast food restaurants. These pockets are the “food deserts” that pockmark the city as well as broad swaths of rural Colorado. Those who do get to a grocery store often don’t make the healthiest selections.

“If you’re getting by on the poverty rate, which is $22,000 for a family of four, you’re not shopping in the vegetable aisle,” said Watney.

Shore promotes such programs as Cooking Matters, a Share Our Strength-sponsored project to teach families shopping and cooking techniques that are both nutritionally sound and budget friendly.

He also bemoaned the fact that Colorado has been slow to take advantage of federal programs designed to ease childhood hunger. Until a recent statewide effort to expand summer feeding programs for children raised the numbers, only 6 percent of Colorado children who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year also got federally-funded meals during the summer.

“This is Washington D.C.’s best billion-dollar secret,” Shore said. “Colorado has left $50 million to $100 million in Washington because more kids who are qualified haven’t enrolled in these programs, which could buy milk from local dairy farmers and bread from local bakers.”

Both speakers urged those present to think creatively and to take personal responsibility for creating the political will necessary to solve the twin epidemics of hunger and obesity.

“We have an obligation not to occupy Wall Street, but to occupy ourselves,” Blackwell said.

By the Numbers: Colorado’s Children and Poverty

  • The number of Colorado children in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – or one of every six in the state – lived in poverty.
  • The number of Colorado children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent – slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.
  • Colorado had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003. By 2007, Colorado ranked 10th, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese – the country’s second-fastest rate of increase.
  • Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

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