Food assistance requests rise in Portage County

Bo Gemmell

Food assistance requests rise in Portage County

Nutrition varies among economic classes; choices lead to women’s obesity

Nutrition varies among economic classes; choices lead to women’s obesity

The number of Portage County families seeking food assistance was greater in 2009 than the previous two years. The data from Empower Portage, a group seeking to end poverty in Portage County, showed an increase in requests for assistance every month last year. Researchers are trying to figure out how to provide the best nutritional options for families in a system with issues.

Multiple factors involved

Members of Kent State’s School of Education, Health and Human Services have looked into what low-income residents are eating. Natalie Caine-Bish, associate professor of health sciences, performs research in community nutrition education at Kent State. She said her work focuses on “trying to figure out what people are eating, why they eat it and how we can intervene.”?

Caine-Bish said the types of food people eat affect community nutrition among the impoverished. The difference in the types of food consumed by different economic classes has to do with cost, and refined grains cost less than whole grains.?

“We definitely see a lower fruit and vegetable consumption,” she said. “The high intake of refined grains is the main thing.”?

Caine-Bish said food insecurity also relates to community nutrition. She said she typically sees food insecurity at or right below the poverty line.?

“At the beginning of the month, they have money for food, but at the end of the month, they don’t have enough,” she said.?

When families’ have a surplus of food at the beginning of the next month, Caine-Bish said they “eat, eat, eat.”?

“It isn’t just the types of food, but also the cycle,” she said.

Need for assistance on the rise

Caine-Bish said that several programs in Portage County have seen increases in the number of people seeking help. ?She said that the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) has seen an increase in services to Portage County. WIC provides supplemental food to pregnant and postpartum women. Aside from government-sponsored programs, private organizations have also seen a spike in food requests.?

One of several resources for people seeking help is the United Way. Erin Dunbar has worked with the organization for 22 years. She said the past two decades at United Way of Portage County have had fluctuations in the number of people in need of help, and the changes related to changes in the economy.

The organization launched 211 Portage in 2003 so community members could call 2-1-1 to find out more about giving or receiving help through United Way.?

“In the last two years, we’ve seen a real increase in people calling,” Dunbar said. “The need for food has more than doubled in those two years.”?

In addition to help with food, the 211 program also provides services in health care, basic needs, community services and income security. Dunbar said United Way’s call volume increased by 35 percent in 2008 and 19.4 percent in 2009.?

“We have noticed in the first couple months of 2010 that we’ve seen a lower increase,” Dunbar said. “We have to really look to see if that continues.”????

SNAPS linked to weight gain

Researchers have found that women using the federal food stamp program are more likely to be overweight than non-users.

The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as “food stamps,” helps provide the needy with adequate amounts of food.

Jay Zagorsky, a researcher at the Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said the program helps fight hunger but may unintentionally encourage weight gain among women. ?A summary of Zagorsky’s findings on Ohio State’s Research Communications Web site stated that males on the SNAP program did not show significantly higher body mass indexes. The body mass index, or BMI, is a measurement based on a person’s weight and height.

Zagorsky said the interviews in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth study that he worked on consisted of about one hour of questioning, so there wasn’t time to ask about particular food choices.

“While I agree that high-fat and high-sodium foods are cheaper than fresh vegetables and fruit, my survey and research do not know what specific types of food people are buying,” Zagorsky said via email.

Contact public affairs reporter Bo Gemmell at [email protected].