Food insecurity leads to health insecurity

By Michele Mummert, Sr. Director of Community Health, WellSpan Health

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This editorial is part of Transforming Health’s Expert Voices, where health care professionals discuss issues facing our community. All information is based on the expert’s experience and is not meant to replace professional medical advice or treatment plans. We encourage you to contact a qualified health care professional to discuss your individual health concerns.

As we approach the season of giving, it’s important to remember that one in 10 households in America are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Statistics here in Pennsylvania mirror those same national numbers. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. As many families prepare a big feast this Thanksgiving, there are others that struggle to put anything on the table.

Michele Mummert, Sr. Director of Community Health, WellSpan Health

Michele Mummert, Sr. Director of Community Health, WellSpan Health

Of course, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables helps to protect one’s health. Nationally, most Americans do not eat a healthy diet and are not physically active at levels needed to maintain proper health. Fewer than one in three adults, and an even lower proportion of adolescents, eat the recommended number of vegetables each day. We also know it can be challenging for our neighbors living in poverty to acquire affordable nutritious food they need to stay healthy. The combination of an unhealthy diet and food insecurity leads to impaired growth in children; more chronic disease in adults; higher health care costs, and missed workdays resulting in lower income.

Food insecurity can make an already challenging situation even more difficult. As stated by Feeding America, “Food insecurity does not exist in isolation, as low-income families are affected by multiple, overlapping issues like lack of affordable housing, social isolation, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages. Taken together, these issues are important social determinants of health.” Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) reports that expansions made to the social safety net during COVID-19, including the federal nutrition programs, mitigated a large spike in hunger during the pandemic, but household food insecurity remained high at 10.5 percent in 2020.

While there is no single face of food insecurity, it is more prevalent when households include children (2x as likely); are headed by a single woman; are African American or Hispanic; and/or have income lower than or equal to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) threshold. Existing research shows that as many as 1 in 14 seniors also struggle with food insecurity. There is also an emerging trend of food insecurity in households headed by grandparents.

Screening and supporting patients with social determinants of health barriers, like food insecurity, are key. Social determinants of health are the conditions in the environment where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that impact their health, functioning, and quality of life. Improving these conditions can have a bigger impact on health than the medical care they receive. In fact, only 20 percent of health outcomes are the result of direct health care. The other 80 percent are related to social and behavioral conditions impacting health and quality of life.

There are many active coalitions and other community collaboratives across our region to support programs and initiatives that benefit many families in accessing healthy food. Building healthier communities starts with a foundation of what many consider a daily struggle: getting enough (or the healthy) food on the table. Some initiatives in our region include community garden workshops, gleaning projects, school-based pantries, and grocery store or farmers market collaborations. Through awareness, advocacy, partnership, and support, our community can come together to address the root causes of hunger and ensure that everyone has ready access to the food and nutrition they need to live a healthy life.

South Central Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a strong charitable food system and large network of partners dedicated to eliminating hunger in our region. This is no easy endeavor and there is always an opportunity to help. Consider how you might take a bite out of hunger and improve the health of your neighborhood by donating or volunteering at a local food bank.