A top federal nutrition official says food assistance programs should not only fight hunger, but also promote healthy eating.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon spoke Monday at the University of Minnesota during a two-day visit to the state. Concannon's agency oversees many federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
Concannon said increasingly those programs need to target both hunger and obesity.
"We have the dual existence in this country -- it seems like a paradox -- of both food insecurity and/or hunger, and obesity," said Concannon. "And that's where the more we can systematically provide reliable access to healthy foods, for children for example, it'll pay off marvelously for the country."
In his speech to public health leaders, school nutrition directors and hunger relief advocates, Concannon said federal nutrition programs help millions of Americans eat healthier. He said the growth of those programs in recent years is primarily a result of the poor economy.
"We are living through a period of time in our country in which these federal nutrition programs have never been more important than they are now, short of the Great Depression of the last century when these programs weren't available," said Concannon. "And that catches some people by surprise, because I don't think they realize that we have some 46 million Americans now under the federal poverty level."
A record number of Minnesotans -- more than 530,000 -- now receive food stamps. More than a third of the state's public school students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Concannon met with Twin Cities public health leaders on Monday. On Tuesday, he'll tour a food shelf run by St. Paul's Neighborhood House, and he'll visit the St. Paul Public Schools to see the district's farm-to-school program.