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Who Is Addressing the Cycle of Food Insecurity and Poor Health Outcomes?

Photo: Courtesy of Redwood Empire Food Bank

40 million people in the United States — including more than 12 million children — lack regular access to enough food to live a healthy life. This is food insecurity, and it exists in every county, parish, and congressional district nationwide. 

Neighbors, classmates, coworkers, friends, and family members often go to bed hungry because they make difficult tradeoffs between food and other basic needs for survival (e.g. housing or food, utilities or meals, transportation or dinner). And for them, it’s a struggle to bring any food to the table, let alone nutritious options, and so begins the cycle of adverse health and financial outcomes.

Rebuilding the pyramid

Diets filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins are fundamental for good health and financial security. But, for people facing hunger, getting essential vitamins and minerals daily can prove difficult. According to Feeding America’s“Hunger in America study, 79 percent of individuals served by the Feeding America network purchase inexpensive foods with low nutritional value in order to feed their family, putting themselves at greater risk of poor health outcomes.

Food insecure adults, for example, are at risk of chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. In fact, 58 percent of households served by the Feeding America network report having at least one member with high blood pressure, and 33 percent report having one member with diabetes.

Medical bills building

Moreover, individuals facing hunger along with chronic disease have higher medical expenses, including more hospitalizations and longer in-patient stays. In 2016 alone, the excess cost associated with food insecurity translated to $52.9 billion in health care expenditures. Additionally, researchers recently published a study illustrating that food-insecure adults had higher healthcare costs than food-secure adults, spending $1,834 more annually. States with the highest health care cost per food-insecure adult include:

These individuals — already faced with tough choices — must make new decisions between food and healthcare visits and medications and disease self-management supplies, and spend more on the latter.

Banking on food banks

The Feeding America network of 200 food banks, along with 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, is on the battlegrounds trying to end hunger and improve health outcomes. From fresh produce and canned vegetables to nutrition education, recipes, and budgeting guides, the network is committed to arming individuals with resources to eat better, live healthier lives, and make their money go further.

Feeding America also supports several partnerships between food banks and health care organizations, especially those in outpatient settings in low-income communities, to help address food insecurity and diet quality in patient populations. For example, Feeding America recently announced a $1 million grant from the Anthem Foundation to launch the “Food is Medicine” program at seven member food banks, which partners with hospital outpatient clinics and support clinic staff with food insecurity screenings and interventions.

Additionally, Feeding America partnered with Humana to develop a toolkit for healthcare professionals to treat food insecurity in their patients and connect patients with community resources to improve access to healthy food and diet quality. Other healthcare professionals can get involved through HungerandHealth.org and share quality information, tools, and resources addressing root causes of food insecurity and social determinants of health.

But health care professionals and food banks aren’t the only ones who can fight against hunger and improve health outcomes — community involvement is also crucial. Whether through volunteering, donating, or spreading awareness on the issue, everyone can help end hunger one helping at a time.

Ami L. McReynolds, Chief Equity and Programs Officer, Feeding America, [email protected]

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