I have been volunteering at a free healthcare clinic for the past 6 months . The clinic provides free services to over 1,000 uninsured individuals in the community. I quickly learned that many of our patients were also struggling in other areas of their lives. This includes a lack of access to housing, transportation, and food. Fortunately, our staff goes above and beyond to help connect patients to helpful community resources. However, this observation struck me with an array of questions: How would these individuals be made aware of resources if we were not there to help? How is this lack of access, specifically to food, affecting their health? What is this intersection between healthcare and food insecurity? Lastly, what are some solutions?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. An estimated 1 in 9 Americans are food insecure. This equates to over 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children. Food insecurity commonly stems from poverty and encompasses both the access and quality of food. Often, individuals facing food insecurity must choose inexpensive food with low-nutritional value. This significantly impacts their health. Persons facing food insecurity are disproportionately affected by diet-sensitive chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Further, there are serious mental and physical health implications for children facing food insecurity. Research has uncovered that food insecurity is connected to delayed development in young children, the risk of chronic illnesses, and behavioral problems like hyperactivity, anxiety, and aggression in school-age children (Feeding America).
The health consequences of food insecurity result in a need for increased medical services and treatments. However, as mentioned above, food insecurity often stems from poverty. Further, healthcare services and treatments can be too expensive for food insecure persons to afford. Research from the Hunger in America study in 2014 found that 66% of food insecure households served by the Feeding America network had to choose between food and medical care. This information presents a clear problem: food insecurity is significantly impacting health and the resources to address these health needs are limited. These health needs are only exacerbated by the continued lack of access to quality food.
Medical providers can play a transformational role in addressing this problem. First, they have the chance to address food insecurity and consequently impact the community health. In turn, they can decrease hospital readmissions and medical treatments by preventing and stopping food insecurity before it is detrimental to someone’s health. Case studies give us an idea of potential solutions for providers. The Greater Chicago Food Depository, a food bank for Cook County, has experienced a rising number of partnerships with healthcare organizations. In collaboration with its healthcare partners, they have developed customized, nutrition access strategies for providers. Further, healthcare partners are screening for food insecurity and referring patients to local resources, providing information on SNAP benefits, and sometimes providing their own food response for patients. For example, Arkansas Children Hospital, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers free healthy lunches to children on campus and in clinics. In 2018, the Children’s Hospital served an average of 128 children per week. Boston Medical Center has an on-site food pantry that distributes more than 15,000 pounds of healthy food to referred patients every week. These case studies provide insight on actions that health providers can take to address the intersection of health and hunger in their communities. Screening for food insecurity should become a regular practice amongst healthcare providers. After screening patients, providers should actively connect patients to hunger relief resources. These cross-sector partnerships are essential in solving the intersectional issue of health and hunger and its detrimental effects on individuals. I am thrilled to see healthcare clinics, like the one in my community, take active steps in addressing this intersectional problem.
By: Megan Miller