“As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition, and to partner with others.”
– Barack Obama
Though most people would associate malnutrition with only undernourishment and starvation, malnutrition is actually the “lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat” (Oxford Dictionary); this may include “undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related non communicable diseases” (“Malnutrition”).
In this site, we are going to be diving into the history of malnutrition and the measures that people have gone through to try to solve the problem. We will be focusing mostly on the undernourished/hunger aspect of malnutrition in America, but will later talk about the obesity side of malnutrition in the modern day.
This subject interests me because of all the work I’ve done making, sorting, and distributing food for people who do not have the resources to acquire their own food. In 6th grade, we had several community engagement days dedicated to working with food. We gardened, sorted fruit at the county food bank, etc. In freshman year, we had another community engagement day and I decided to help cook and serve meals at St. Vincent de Paul, a community center that helps provide hot meals, shelter, and supplies for people in need. I really enjoy volunteering and helping people, so exploring solutions that could possibly lead to me making a great impact on my community really excites me.
Mal-new-trition: A New Problem Arises
May 29, 1921. San Francisco Chronicle. “Malnutrition Kills Federal Janitor, Widow and Son in City Hospital, Custom-House Employes Aid Family.” Peter Carlson was a federal janitor whose entire family grew ill due to insufficient nourishment (“Malnutrition Kills Federal Janitor”). His family lived on a salary of $50 a month ($720.59 today) and when illness struck them, they had no money to buy adequate food. This was one of the first times malnutrition was mentioned as an American problem in a public newspaper (“Malnutrition Kills Federal Janitor”), never being noticed as a big problem in the United States before. In fact, malnutrition was seen as a common, though undesirable, characteristic of developing nations, not the United States (Fogel).
As with Peter Carlson and his family, a poor diet contributed to lots of malnutrition deaths in the late 1920s. Poor people were unable to get proper food, so they suffered a lot of vitamin deficiencies (Gortner). Especially in the South, huge numbers of citizens died from scurvy because of a Vitamin C deficiency (found in broccoli, spinach, oranges). Doctors discovered more causes of death such as beriberi from thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B1 – found in lentils, macadamia nuts), xerophthalmia from riboflavin deficiency (Vitamin B2 – found in dairy products, lean meats, green vegetables), or rickets from a Vitamin D deficiency (found in fatty foods, egg yolks) (Gortner).
Beginning to Help: The Creation of the Food Stamp
Henry A. Wallace’s Food Stamp Program of 1939 helped further publicize the issue of malnutrition. His program in Rochester, New York was “an experiment in the form of a direct attack on one of [America’s] most disconcerting problems” (“2,253 AT ROCHESTER BUY RELIEF STAMPS”). At 5pm the day the program began, 2,253 books of stamps had been sold, earning $12,368 (equaling $229,538.51 in the modern day) (“2,253 AT ROCHESTER BUY RELIEF STAMP”). Each client in the program was allowed to buy $1-$1.50 of orange stamps a week and were given 50 cents worth of blue stamps, too. The orange stamps were used for purchasing regular foods and the blue stamps were used to obtain “surplus foods” such as butter, eggs, flour, beans, and grapefruit. In 1939, around 10,000 welfare checks were mailed to the relief clients (“2,253 AT ROCHESTER BUY RELIEF STAMP”). Around a dozen government officials observed the process and agreed to duplicate the program throughout the rest of the country.
The food stamp program flourished underneath Kennedy’s Presidency in the 60’s (MacDonald) and also expanded immensely with the creation of new programs under the White House in the 70’s and 80’s (“House Votes”)
Modern Day Malnutrition
What Does Malnutrition Affect Today?
Nowadays, malnutrition affects more than just the people suffering from it; it also takes a toll on the economy. Additionally, the malnutrition cases of obesity have become a more prevalent issue than in the past. Today, malnutrition affects billions of people; 1.9 billion people are overweight/obese while 462 million are underweight (“Malnutrition”). Over 37 million people in the U.S. live in hunger, including over 11 million children who are more prone to facing food insecurity than any other groups (“Facts About Hunger”). As of 2019, a majority of the families living in poverty have an income of less than $25,750 a year, and even went as low as $9,175 a year in 2014 (“Facts About Hunger). Malnutrition also causes millions of deaths, killing 4 million people a year from obesity and causing 45% of children under 5 worldwide to die from undernutrition (“2018 Global Nutrition Report”).
Diving deeper into health issues, malnutrition also is known to be linked to different diseases. A newspaper article written by healthcare reporter Jack Craver on September 28, 2016 talked about a study done by the health care/research firm, Abbott. Abbott discovered many health conditions linked to malnutrition, such as dementia and breast cancer (Craver). Another study from the Department of Neuropsychiatry at Kumamoto University in Japan also found a strong link between malnutrition and cognitive function. They observed that weight loss due to malnutrition often precedes dementia, which then increases with the progression of the disease (Koyama et al), and that a deficiency in certain nutrients such as Vitamin B12 (found in animal products) (Moore et al) and folate (found in spinach and nuts) (Michelakos et al) may cause a decrease in cognitive functionality.
Today’s Helping Hands
Today, there are tons of different organizations working to end the different aspects of malnutrition. One organization working to educate patients and families is the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN). ASPEN was founded in 1975 for the purpose of “providing optimal nutrition to all people under all conditions at all times” (“History of ASPEN”). The organization puts a lot of focus on research, clinical practice, advocacy, education, and an interdisciplinary approach to nutrition support therapy. They provide a lot of resources for everyone to use, such as pages about parenteral and enteral nutrition (“About Clinical Nutrition”). ASPEN also provides resources on other organizations and groups to help get assistance for one’s needs and education/support on illnesses and therapies (“About Clinical Nutrition”).
Another organization working to help end malnutrition is the USDA. The USDA provides numerous food assistance programs to millions of families suffering from food insecurity (“USDA Food and Nutrition Service”). One of the biggest programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP works as a food stamp program, providing a food budget for families in need to purchase healthy food and grow towards self sufficiency (“Supplemental Nutrition”). Another USDA nutrition program is the National School Lunch Program. The National School Lunch Program was established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and signed into law in 1946 by President Truman (“National School Lunch”). The program provides balanced, low cost meals to children everyday at school.
For a possible personal solution to the future, I would like to volunteer more at food banks and kitchens. A possible community level solution would be getting more people involved with volunteering at food banks and kitchens, and making volunteering a repeating occasion. Although it doesn’t seem like much, getting a big group of people can really help a food bank or kitchen because it relieves stress for the workers, the workload is distributed more, and everything moves more quickly with everyone helping. Additionally, with multiple big groups helping out in lots of locations, the service adds up to making a great difference.
For a possible personal solution for the obesity side of malnutrition, I would like to try to provide information and education on what proper nutrition is to everyone. It is important to know what nutrients and vitamins are vital for your health and what foods they show up in. Spreading knowledge about proper nutrition will help people focus on which groceries to purchase in order to eat healthy and sustainable meals. A possible wider-scale solution could be having occasional nutrition presentations to the community that people could freely attend. Along with the presentations, we could get doctors and nutritionists to work together to create a list of affordable, nutrient rich foods for a shopping list. Communities could share classic and healthy recipes they always make with each other!
A Challenge for You!
Thank you so much for reading and following along with me! After learning more about malnutrition, I challenge you guys to see what you can do locally to help out people who are undernourished or struggling with obesity. Comment below things that you would like to do to help your community! If you have any questions, would like to discuss possible solutions, or just chat, email me at email@example.com 🙂