01/19/2014 09:50 EST | Updated 03/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Poverty and Obesity: Neighbours In Our Own Communities

Food banks, pantries and soup kitchens originally designed for emergencies now struggle to meet rising, chronic need. And in both the grocery store and the food bank, the cheapest and easiest food to come by is processed, packaged, and unhealthy.

Tremonica is an obviously obese seven-year-old girl in Mississippi. She tells a nurse that she ate nothing for breakfast and only potato chips after school. Her mother, Kimberley, explains: "I look around and see what's the cheapest. The fruit are very high. And you've got chips that are 35 cents a bag. So I say, 'Okay I'm not gonna get the fruit, I'm gonna get some chips.'"

The innocent, blank stare on Tremonica's face as she stirs cheese powder into a pot of macaroni is just one of several moments in the award-winning documentary A Place at the Table that unexpectedly brings tears into the eyes of anyone watching. We also meet a single mother with only "hot pockets" left to feed her two preschoolers for supper, and a fifth-grader who confesses she often "zones out" and envisions her teacher as a banana "because my stomach is really hurting." The film lays bare the link between poverty, obesity and countless other maladies resulting from the lack of affordable access to healthy food for millions of people in the developed world.

Last week we wrote about global food security and the tragedy of a billion people suffering from hunger and malnutrition in impoverished nations while food is so plentiful in North America and Europe. But even countries of plenty are home to food insecurity, or "food poverty."

As governments neglect income-support systems and slowly offload the social safety net onto the charitable sector, the most vulnerable in our communities are forced more than ever to choose food by price and convenience over nutritional value. Food banks, pantries and soup kitchens originally designed for emergencies now struggle to meet rising, chronic need. And in both the grocery store and the food bank, the cheapest and easiest food to come by is processed, packaged, and unhealthy.

The resulting crises in obesity, diabetes and other diet-linked diseases are taxing health systems and whole economies. Researchers at Brandeis University pegged the cost of hunger and food insecurity to the U.S. economy at $167.5-billion, while the Ontario Association of Food Banks estimates the health-care costs of poverty in Canada at $7.6-billion a year and the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the U.K. finds that "poor diet is related to 30% of life years lost in early death and disability."

Fortunately, new models in the food security sector are evolving to tackle both hunger and health in our communities.

In Canada, "community food centres" are re-imagining the species of charitable food organizations. An idea germinated at Toronto-based The Stop, the "CFC" involves its clients in a wide range of programs that build healthy food awareness, gardening and cooking skills, and a community of support. Clients even form the bulk of volunteers. Taken together, the seemingly simple community gardens and cooking classes, with counselling on how to access social services and workshops on food issues and advocacy, combine into an empowering and long-term approach to (healthy) food security for individuals and the community as a whole.

In the U.K., six cities have launched the Sustainable Food Cities Network aimed at universal access to local, affordable, healthy and sustainably produced food. Through a dedicated municipal officer in each town, the group's ambitious goal is to rally local residents, businesses and community groups to ensure that every school, hospital, restaurant and workplace serves only healthy and sustainable meals.

In the U.S., the No Kid Hungry campaign spearheaded by anti-childhood hunger organization Share Our Strength and actor/activist Jeff Bridges combines school and summer meal programs, healthy shopping and cooking education, and public advocacy work to help low-income children and their families access healthy food.

Each initiative complements other long-term, sustainable solutions--namely, a restored effort by governments to adequately fund income support systems, instituting a "living wage" for service workers and other low-income earners, and shifting agricultural policies (especially in the U.S.) to stop the imbalance of farm subsidies that make the processed-food inputs like corn and soy far cheaper than fresh produce, grains and meats.

We all need and deserve affordable access to healthy food, and the first step is knowing how to find it. Food Banks Canada has great guides to low-cost healthy grocery shopping and planning healthy family meals on a budget, and Alive magazine has one of our favourite articles on eating healthy on a budget.

We can also help the Tremonicas in our communities have a chance at a healthy food future. See if your hometown is host to one of the exciting food security initiatives listed above, and the next time you donate to (or organize!) a local food drive, consider the nutritional value of your donations--call the food bank ahead to see what healthy food items are most needed, including soups and canned vegetables.

With a full community effort, one day the choice between fruit and chips won't come down to the price tag.

This week's challenge: Contact your local food bank and ask what kinds of healthy foods they need most, then check your cupboards or grocery store and make a healthy donation!

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 13 cities across North America and the United Kingdom, inspiring more than 180,000 attendees and millions more online. For more information, visit