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This month, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition in Health will focus the nation’s attention on the importance of a high quality diet and the impact of diet on hunger and health. Millions of Americans are afflicted with food insecurity and diet-related diseases—including heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes—which are some of the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S. Hunger and diet-related diseases have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, including older adults and persons with disabilities.

The Conference’s focus is on Five Pillars to End Hunger and increase healthy eating: 1) Improve food access and affordability; 2) Integrate nutrition and health; 3) Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices; 4) Support physical activity for all, and 5) Enhance nutrition and food security research. These pillars will help shape public policy, public awareness and public conversations about hunger and health.

Let’s talk about food. . .

We all eat. And we all talk about food and eating. Food Network and the Cooking Channel are basic cable staples, offering round-the-clock shows about food – making it, eating it, and competitions about making it and eating it. Public television has plenty of food shows, too. Think America’s Test Kitchen or the Joy of Cooking. The latest season of the Great British Baking Show launched on Netflix earlier this month. If your preference runs to travel programming, lots of those shows are about eating in other places. There are millions of Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok accounts mostly comprised of plates of food, decorated cakes or food preparation techniques. A friend posted a photo on his Facebook page, celebrating that he had found a store in his area that sold Frute Brute, a beloved cereal from his childhood. Celebrity chefs, including Cleveland’s own Michael Symon, host television shows, market cookbooks, cookware or lines of prepared meals. Independent restaurants promote their appearances on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri’s show built around sampling food from across the country.

We sing about food, too, whether it is Jimmy Buffet’s ode to the cheeseburger, or Cookie Monster’s C is for Cookie. Mostly food songs seem to celebrate excess, but not always. A Tribe Called Quest’s Ham ‘N’ Eggs, is mostly about cutting back on fatty foods and cholesterol. Even Cookie Monster discovered that A Cookie is a Sometime Food.

You may remember learning about the Food Wheel or the Food Pyramid in health class, or more recently, MyPlate guidelines. These charts and nutritional guides developed by the United States Department of Agriculture are intended to help raise awareness of proper nutrition and portion sizes. The USDA began issuing guidance of what to eat in the 1890s. The public health focus on diet and nutrition expanded during World War II, even seen as part of national defense. Today, we routinely expect to see nutrition labels on canned foods or prepared meals. Many restaurant menus, even at drive-thrus, include some information about calories, fats or other nutritional data. Not all the labeling originates from government guidelines. Organic, free-range or wild caught labels have conflicting definitions. I saw “gluten-free” bottled water at the grocery store. I can’t figure that one out either.

We talk about food, sing about food, read about it, take pictures of it or watch it on TV. Food and nutrition are something we talk about at Benjamin Rose, too. Our Rose Centers offer daily, hot meals at the sites, and our Home Delivered Meals provide a regular source of nutritious meals to those who are homebound or otherwise unable to prepare food for themselves. We work with community partners to offer nutrition education, shopping tips and meal preparation classes, and to arrange for fresh produce and pantry items to ensure that clients are able to eat well.

One of the most exciting concepts in nutrition programs today is the notion of “food as medicine.” It’s not a new idea. We all know the sayings “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “you are what you eat.” But today we are able to study and measure the impact of diet on health. Our Nutrition Solution service offers medically-tailored meals to clients, as part of an overall plan of diet, education, counseling and exercise. Participants come to the program as part of a hospital discharge, or a treatment plan for chronic health condition, such as heart disease, hypertension or diabetes. Cleveland was selected as one of five sites for a Collaborative Approach to Public Goods Investment (CAPGI), which allowed us to take the program to scale, with the involvement of multiple community investors, including United Way of Greater Cleveland and others. Early results are promising, showing that Nutrition Solutions helps improve the health and well-being of the participants, enhances their medical treatments, and reduces hospitalizations or emergency room use. It is part of a larger conversation about improving health and quality of life.

Learn more about the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health: White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health!