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In wealthy Orange County, a campaign to waste less to help feed hungry kids

January 24, 2014 at 1:46 PM EDT
California's Orange County is home to some of the richest Americans, as well as more than 150,000 children who don't always have access to the food they need to lead healthy and productive lives. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the long-term consequences of that disparity and examines the county's recent public health campaign to address it.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Now a pair of stories tied to concerns over economic inequality and mobility in the U.S.  The president is expected to speak at length about these topics in his State of the Union address next week.

First, a health story.  There are about 50 million people in the United States who don’t have access to the food they need to lead healthy and productive lives; 17 million of them are children.  Many live in big cities like Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and Chicago.  That’s according to the latest report from the hunger relief group Feeding America.

But there are areas where the problem is much more pronounced than you might expect.  And one of them is in Southern California.

Hari is back with our report.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  It’s known as one of the most exclusive places on earth. The home of the rich and spectacularly rich.

Orange County, Calif.’s, reputation only grew when the TV crews started rolling in several years ago.  But “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and the teens of “Laguna Beach” failed to mention a major piece of the O.C. drama.  The county is also among the top 10 in the U.S. for childhood food insecurity.

The term means that, along with the yacht clubs and average home prices of nearly $2 million in some spots, Orange County also has more than 150,000 children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Paul Leon is the president of the Illumination Foundation, a group that helps struggling families find housing and stability.

PAUL LEON, Illumination Foundation:  Orange County is basically the tale of two cities.  We have the area that we’re standing in right now, which is Newport Beach, is the richest city in the nation.  And then 17 miles away, we have one of the most densely populated and poorest cities in the nation.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Among the poor are thousands of low-income workers who support the county’s luxury economy.  Before Leon’s foundation intervened, kids in the Tina Pacific neighborhood of Anaheim often skipped meals.

Michele Cummings, who volunteers for the foundation and lives in Tina Pacific, was one of the first to recognize how hungry her neighbors were.

MICHELE CUMMINGS:  One night, we had pizza delivered, and a kid came over like a half-an-hour later, and he was like, ‘Do you have any leftovers?  I’m really hungry.’  And I was like, ‘Are you serious?’  And he was like, ‘Yeah. I’m hungry.’  And I went, ‘Well, yeah. Come on. Here. Take it, the rest of it.’

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Cummings made some calls and helped organize a program called Kids Cafe.  Now, each day after school, she passes out fresh food dropped off by a local food bank.

MICHELE CUMMINGS:  OK, go sit at your tables.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  The kids call Cummings the Lunch Lady, a point of great pride for her. Because not long ago, she and her 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, didn’t always have enough nutritious food, either.


HARI SREENIVASAN:  When Cummings lost her job, her life spiraled out of control.  Stable housing can be hard to come by in a place where average rents top $1,200 for a one-bedroom.

They found themselves in line at the armory’s homeless shelter, then living in a low-rent motel where it was difficult to prepare little more than cheap, processed food.

MICHELE CUMMINGS:  Like, at first, we were just doing microwave meals every — every night.  And it was — just, like, it was horrible.  The salt in them was horrible.  So before I got, like, cooking stuff, you know, we were living off microwave meals, definitely.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  For Cummings’ health, it was a recipe for disaster.  Within months, she gained close to 40 pounds.  That worried her.  But even more so, she worried about Sofia. And for good reason.

Recent studies by the National Institutes of Health suggest that a lack of nutritious food, especially during childhood, can have long-lasting physical consequences that linger for years, if not decades. Among them: anemia, early onset diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, stunted intellectual growth and obesity.

It’s that last point that many find hard to reconcile — the presence of malnutrition and obesity at the same time.  But most processed foods, while high in calories, simply don’t contain the nutrients that are so crucial for good health and productivity.

There’s also evidence that the body stores fat differently in times of stress, and that alternating between eating more when cash and food are plentiful and less when they’re not triggers the body’s feast-or-famine reflexes.  The result?  Weight gain.

Barbara Laraia of the University of California at Berkeley has been studying the long-term impacts of hunger for two decades and says it all means the nutritional odds are stacked against low-income families.

BARBARA LARAIA, University of California, Berkeley:  So we have the stressful situations where, you know, the body is saying, ‘I need some energy, reach for the cookie.’ And at this point in time in the United States, cookies and snack foods are everywhere.

So not only is the income restriction leading to purchasing energy-dense foods, but it’s the stress, as well, that absolutely leads to the perfect storm of gaining weight, possibly developing chronic disease.  And it might be associated with later chronic disease for children.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  That’s why, with 1 in 5 children sometimes going without meals in the communities surrounding Disneyland, Orange County has begun approaching the issue like a public health crisis.

It started when O.C. public health officer Dr. Eric Handler ran into the director of the Orange County Food Bank recently and had two basic questions.

DR. ERIC HANDLER, Orange County Health Care Agency:  ‘One, is there enough food in your food bank?’  And he said no.  And I said, ‘If we were able to capture food that is wasted and direct it to people in need, could we end hunger in Orange County?’  And he said yes.  And that was the start of this campaign.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  About 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted, too often ending up in local landfills and buried.  With that in mind, Handler started pushing the idea that businesses can easily change their habits and have an impact.

So for the past few months, Handler and his team have been hitting the road in Anaheim.

DR. ERIC HANDLER:  We are very hopeful that there will be significant increases in number of establishments donating food.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Hoping to target first the largest food producers — places like Disneyland, Angel Stadium, the Anaheim Convention Center, and the Honda Center.

DR. ERIC HANDLER:  Our goal is to find out which establishments are currently donating food and which are not, and those who are not donating food, to educate them to the fact that they are not held liable if food is not correctly prepared.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  One of the companies working with the Waste Not O.C. Coalition has already shown the concept can work.  The Cheesecake Factory near Disneyland donates 200 to 300 pounds of food each week that has been fully prepared, but left unserved.

In the last five-and-a-half years, the chain has stored, packaged and handed off more than two-and-a-half million pounds nationwide.  Members of local food banks pick up the food, which is often healthier than the packaged variety donated in food drives.

DR. PHYLLIS AGRAN, Pediatrician:  Hi.  How are you today?

HARI SREENIVASAN:  On the consumer end, the Waste Not coalition is also working to convince Orange County health care providers to ask questions about hunger during routine primary care visits.

DR. PHYLLIS AGRAN:  Is there any time in the last couple of months that you have had difficulty financially purchasing adequate food, fresh fruits and vegetables for him or your family?

HARI SREENIVASAN:  The idea is that people like Dr. Phyllis Agran stand the best shot at breaking through the stigma and getting people the help they need.  Agran agrees and has been willing to give it a try.  But she also says local projects of this kind are just a piece of the solution.

DR. PHYLLIS AGRAN:  More importantly, I think, as pediatricians, we have a responsibility to children to advocate at the local, the state and the federal level for policies that will eliminate food insecurity in this country.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Back in the neighborhood of Tina Pacific, things are looking up for Michele Cummings.  She recently landed a job as a caretaker for the elderly, which means that she and her daughter have enough food and a better mix of it.  Now that she has a kitchen, Cummings can buy in bulk, cook from scratch, and make her food stamp dollars last.

MICHELE CUMMINGS:  Like, I wouldn’t say I can buy whatever I want, you know?  I don’t barbecue steak every night, that’s for sure.  But I make it stretch.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  On the menu this night: reheated soup laced with fresh vegetables. Not the most elaborate meal in Orange County. But at least it’s healthy, she says. And enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Online, we have more about the ties between hunger, stress and weight gain, and a slide show of the other top counties in the U.S. for childhood hunger.  That’s on our Health page.

The NewsHour’s Jason Kane produced this segment with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.