By Jennifer Murray and Dylan Bestler
Food insecurities are part of social determinants of health, which are conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.
What is food insecurity exactly? Simply put, a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, which the Pandemic intensified for millions of Americans. In the United States currently, 1 in 9 people struggle with hunger.
This is not a recent problem though and was not caused by Covid-19. In fact, as of 2017, there are 2.9 million homes in the United States with food insecurities and 1 in 6 children in the United States lives in a food-insecure household. And that number has been steadily growing.
Food insecurity is part of a broader, national issue which involves all aspects of Health and Human Services and does not just affect people living in poverty. For example, you may have equal access to the same grocery stores as someone in a different financial situation, but most often you cannot or do not always make the same choices.
Guidelines to reduce food insecurities:
- Available food options must be nutritious, fresh, and unprocessed
- The food must be affordable
- People must have reliable access to nutritious food at all times
Food insecurity can have a wide impact, depending on each individual’s circumstances. Some of the most common, yet complex, effects of food insecurity include:
- Serious health complications, especially when people facing hunger are forced to choose between spending money on food and medicine or medical care.
- Damage to a child’s ability to learn and grow.
- Difficult decisions for seniors — often living on fixed incomes — such as choosing between paying for food and critical healthcare.
What makes this issue so difficult is that the underlying causes — poverty, unemployment/under-employment, substance abuse, behavioral health, and inconsistent access to enough healthy food — are often deeply interconnected. Luckily, there are ways our government and communities can come together to address these insecurities.
It all starts with education. If schools taught their children the dangers of certain foods and the health benefits of others, students could begin a good diet at a young age. Old habits are hard to break, and if children are raised on nothing but fast food and sugary snacks, they are more likely to continue living that lifestyle as they continue to grow up.
Just like any addiction, there are specialized counselors who can help patients get through unhealthy diet issues. Expanding on therapy, people often lean on snacks and other comfort foods when they are feeling anxious, depressed or some other mental health condition to cope. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 38% of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Medicaid can help low-income families afford proper behavioral health screenings and counseling to aid such challenges.
Reducing Food Waste
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates that one-third of the food produced each year (approximately 1.3 billion tons) is wasted or lost, globally. That food could feed more than twice the nearly 800 million people who are food insecure. Legally, food distributers cannot sell food and drink that is past its expiration, but that does not always mean it is inedible. Instead of just throwing it out, a program should be started, like the WeFood project in Denmark, that distributes goods that have overdue ‘best before’ dates and/or damaged packaging to those with little access to food.
Climate Change and Agriculture
Climate change severely affects agriculture and the production of food. Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can improve crop yields in some regions, however, to realize these benefits, nutrient levels, soil moisture, water availability, and other conditions must also be met. With droughts all over the US, especially in the mid-west, we do not have enough water to provide the crops. Less crops means less nutrition and more salt and sugar consumption. While our government is drawing up major climate change initiatives, we can do our part by recycling, conserving water, volunteering at cleanups, reducing pollution by walking/biking more instead of driving, etc.
When all else fails, the government will step in and help those who cannot afford nutritious meals for themselves and their families. Government-funded programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, and much more, all provide permanent or temporary assistance for those struggling to buy groceries.
Food insecurities remain a major problem not just in the US but all over the world. It can affect people of any demographic, no matter your gender, race, income, education, or geographic location. If we all pitch in and do our part, we can slowly but surely mend this problem, one person at a time.
Cantata Health is committed to finding a solution to social determinants of health and is working on whole-patient-care solutions which includes all aspects of Health and Human Services including food insecurities. We are putting the person in the center and committing to a patient-centric future.