Speakers decry food insecurity at MU symposium

Friday, October 19, 2012 | 1:40 p.m. CDT; updated 3:15 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 19, 2012

COLUMBIA — Forty years ago, David Holben's father fell down a set of stairs.

After that day, "magically my lunch tickets changed from one color to another color," Holben said, "because reduced-priced school lunch tickets looked different than everyone else's."

Holben, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Ohio University, has taken his personal experience with food insecurity and has since been trying to find solutions to the universal problem. 

Holben spoke to a room of about 200 students, faculty and locals Thursday as part of a two-day symposium hosted by the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources titled"Food Insecurity: Assessing Disparities, Consequences, and Policies."

In 2011, about 15 percent of U.S. households were food insecure, which amounts to about 18 million households, according to the Department of Agriculture. Food insecurity is related to health problems such as poor diabetes management, overall poor health status and depression.

Food insecurity is a preventable health threat, Holben said. Communities can help by referring patients and clients to safety net programs and collaborating to develop programs that improve food access and food security. 

Such a program is ECOhio, a community garden project in Athens, Ohio, where anyone can walk by and take fresh produce, Holben said. Another food security support program in the area is the Chesterhill Produce Auction, where local produce is auctioned to the public.

"There are more hungry people than we can even begin to count in the U.S. and in Columbia," said Melinda Hemmelgarn, a dietitian of 30 years who attended Holben's speech. "People are making decisions that don't support their bodies (because) their choices are limited."

Sandy Rikoon, one of the symposium's organizers, said about 400 people attended the event over the course of two days.

Holben was one of two main speakers at the symposium. Patricia Allen, a professor at Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Ore., gave a presentation Wednesday night.

Allen spoke about the importance of food security and a socially just food system. She gave a definition of a socially just food system as "one in which power and material resources are shared equitably so that people and communities can meet their needs, live with security and dignity, now and into the future." This definition came about at a meeting of academics and activists in California, Allen said. 

Women and people of color do not have equal access to farmland and are among those likely be hungry, along with children and the elderly, Allen said. 

In conversations about food security and food safety, there is often tension between protecting the environment for future generations while not giving much concern to those who are here now, Allen said. 

She said these are the worst of times because of the food security crisis but also the best of times because of people's engagement with the issue. 

"We can create a world where there is a place for everyone at the table that is overflowing with good and beautiful food," Allen said.  

Supervising editor is Simina Mistreanu.

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