CANYON COUNTY — The word “hunger” often conjures up images of pot-bellied, skeletal children in faraway lands. But hunger can happen much closer to home — and it can take different forms.

It’s a complicated issue, Idaho State University nutritionist Ruth Schneider said. In the United States, nearly all people — including the poor — consume enough calories to get by day to day. But that doesn’t mean they’re getting the nutrients they need for long-term health. And food-related anxiety can lead to unhealthy eating habits, further complicating the issue.

Bad nutrition doesn’t just mean too little

“‘Malnutrition’ just means bad nutrition,” Schneider said. “It could be undernutrition or overnutrition. A toxicity of any nutrient you could think of as malnutrition, and that’s too much as opposed to too little.”

But both ends of the malnutrition spectrum have something in common: They’re most likely to occur among the poor. If you have to chose between a cheap hamburger or an apple, she explained, you’re probably going to choose the one with enough calories to get you through the day — even if it’s not as good for your long-term health.

And not only that, but those who don’t know how — or when — they’ll get their next meal tend to eat too much in any given sitting, Schneider said. That habit can be hard to break even when food is plentiful, which can very quickly lead to obesity and other health problems.

Those who make it their business to help the hungry — whether government programs or private non-profit groups — understand these issues and do their best to address them. Rev. Bill Roscoe, who serves three hot meals each day at his three Treasure Valley rescue missions, said he tries to make sure his guests get a well-balanced, healthy diet.

“We are very, very conscious of the nutritional needs, primarily because we serve a lot of seniors, a lot of people who have unstable health conditions, and a lot of children,” Roscoe said. “And in fact, as least one of our missions has completely stopped collecting doughnuts and pastries from the local bakeries, because those were becoming the main menu items for a lot of people.”

Instead, Roscoe continued, his missions try to provide healthy alternatives such as fresh fruits and vegetables. And thanks to the local farmers, the Canyon County shelters stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of offering fresh produce.

But often, nonprofits are at the mercy of their donors, who may give in small quantities without considering the needs of the facility and those they serve. Donations often come in the form of high-protein foods — and almost everyone in the U.S. already gets plenty of protein, Schneider said, regardless of income level. But antioxidants and fidonutrients from plant products, which can help prevent or fight disease, are often in short supply. And inexpensive white bread lacks the fiber and nutrients of whole-grain products. Fresh produce can be difficult for food centers to store, but shelf-stable canned fruits work just fine, Schneider said.

Challenges for charities

Still, small charity pantries do the best they can with what they have. Rev. Royce Wright of the Oasis Food Center in Caldwell offers food boxes and hot meals to the needy once per week, and tries to keep his service well-rounded and healthy — an effort Oasis guest Sherrie Imm certainly appreciates during her weekly visits.

“Lunch is always good,” Imm said as she enjoyed a hot meal at the center. That day’s offering? “A chicken sandwich, and beans, and salad and a cookie.”

But ultimately, Wright said, it’s up to parents and individuals to take responsibility for nutrition.

“Nutritional food is more expensive than a bag of chips and soda pop,” Wright said. “But you’re not going to change that bag of chips and soda pop by saying, ‘You can’t eat it.’ The only way you’re going to change it is through education, and that’s going to take the parents. We want our national school lunch program to change their dietary requirements, which is fine. Our schools do the best they can, but when those kids go home at night, mom and dad are still going to put mac and cheese on the table.”

Schneider agrees. Education is the key to proper nutrition — and not just for those with low incomes. Although malnutrition hits them the hardest, they certainly don’t suffer alone.

“You can get plenty of calories and not get enough of the nutrients that you need. And in fact, most people in the United States — poor or not — there are nutrients that we don’t get enough of,” Schneider said. “Calcium, iron — especially in children and menstruating women — it’s very difficult to get enough iron.”

And the answer, she said, is to provide everyone with guidelines and education.

• Check out tomorrow’s Idaho Press-Tribune for the second installment in our “Beyond Hunger” series.

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