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Food for all: How to fight food insecurity and improve access to better nutrition

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(BPT) - Food shouldn't be an impossible choice. Everyone needs nutritious foods to thrive. Yet, new data show food and nutrition insecurity are on the rise. According to the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, over 44 million people in the U.S., including 13.4 million children, struggle with food insecurity.

Food insecurity — not having enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle — can impact anyone. Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, ability, geography or national origin, hunger is universal. People are facing hunger in every county in the U.S., including many students on college campuses nationwide. This is according to Carrie Hamady, EdD, MS, RD, LD, Chair of the Department of Public and Allied Health at Bowling Green State University and an ambassador to National Dairy Council. Hamady points out that, “students should not have to choose between tuition or nutrition, families shouldn’t have to decide between the gas bill or groceries and seniors shouldn’t be forced to pick medicine over a meal.”

The interplay of food insecurity and nutrition

Related to food insecurity is nutrition insecurity, when someone does not have consistent and equitable access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods and beverages that promote well-being, reduce risk of disease and help manage disease. This is of particular concern among racial and ethnic minority populations, lower income populations, and rural and remote populations who may already be at risk for health disparities.

According to the USDA Actions on Nutrition Security, there is a strong association between food insecurity and poor nutrition. Those who report being most food insecure are also at a higher risk of developing diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

"Being well-nourished matters whether you are 2 or 82 and should be a non-issue in a country known as the breadbasket of the world," said Clancy Harrison, MS, RDN, founder of Food Dignity and an ambassador to National Dairy Council. "In fact, many young children don't have access to nutrient-rich foods like dairy foods needed to support their growth and brain development."

Harrison points out adults also struggle with food and nutrition insecurity, impacting their health outcomes. "For adults, nutrition can significantly impact management of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease," added Harrison. "Proper nutrition also helps maintain muscle and bone to help people thrive into their golden years."

One key strategy to address nutrition insecurity

There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to ending food and nutrition insecurity in the U.S. However, there is one food group that may help close the gap.

Dairy foods are a powerhouse of essential vitamins and minerals, providing unique benefits that can help improve nutrition security and reduce risk of chronic disease like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. According to National Dairy Council, milk, including lactose-free milk, provides 13 essential nutrients: protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, iodine and vitamins A, D, B2, B3, B5 and B12.

Of note, dairy foods are a key source of three of the four nutrients of public health concern — calcium, potassium and vitamin D. These nutrients are crucial for overall health, especially for vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant people and older adults.

Even those who are lactose intolerant can benefit nutritionally from culturally relevant options like lactose-free dairy milk. And there are other dairy foods with lower lactose. For example, natural cheeses contain minimal lactose and Greek- and Icelandic-style yogurts have less lactose plus live and active cultures that help break down lactose, making it easier to digest.

Given their nutritional profile, dairy foods offer tremendous value to food assistance programs like WIC, the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, SNAP and food banks nationwide when it comes to helping bridge nutritional gaps. Plus dairy foods pair well with other under-consumed food groups like vegetables and whole grains.

Another benefit is that the dairy food group offers many affordable options. One serving of dairy milk costs about 22 cents. Dairy foods offer an economical source of nutrition, making them an ideal candidate to help address health equity and improve food and nutrition insecurity.

Ensuring dairy can meet food and nutrition security needs for all

Despite the potential of dairy foods to help address hunger and nutrition, milk remains one of the most requested and least donated foods at food banks. That’s why the dairy community has long partnered with Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks providing food to Americans in emergency need and on an ongoing basis. Increasing access to milk, lactose-free dairy milk and other dairy foods can make a difference to millions of people who rely on hunger systems to nourish their families.

There are many ways you can help ensure your neighbors are nourished. Simply raising awareness of food and nutrition insecurity is a start. You can also volunteer your time and/or donate to your local food bank or pantry to help nourish those in need.

If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, visit Nutrition.gov/Topics/Food-Security-And-Access to learn about food assistance programs available to you. For more on National Dairy Council, visit usdairy.com/nationaldairycouncil.