Healthify Blog

Treating the Health Issue of Hunger

From rural areas to our largest cities, hunger plagues many in our country. Today, one in six Americans faces the struggle of food insecurity. As the cost of food and other expenses increase, more people are forced to make tradeoffs, and their health is worse as a result.

Despite popular belief, hunger is not just an issue among the homeless or those living in extreme poverty. In 2014, nearly 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including more than 15 million children and five million adults aged 60 years or older. The struggle to receive enough food is often the result of unexpected expenses that force many to make difficult choices. A job loss, health emergency, increased drug cost, and car repair are among the many reasons that buying enough food becomes a challenge.

There are numerous community and government-sponsored programs to help provide food for those in need. The government program most widely relied on, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides monthly assistance to more than 45 million Americans. The program, previously known as food stamps, is designed to act as a supplement to a household’s food needs. But for many they rely on it for more than just a supplement, and as a result, the monthly assistance is not enough. As an example, researchers at the University of California found that hospital admissions for hypoglycemia, the low blood sugar that can affect diabetics, increased near the end of each month; such admissions were 27 percent higher for low-income patients the last week of the month than in the first week—a link they believe can be contributed to food deprivation waiting for next month’s SNAP benefits.

“Good Food is Good Medicine”

The introduction of the Affordable Care Act paved the way for health systems to focus on the root cause of diseases within their community—hunger being one of them.

Food shortage has been linked to chronic diseases, including obesity, depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and osteoporosis, among others. The stress of lacking food combined with cycles of food deprivation, and limited access to healthy, high-quality foods also contribute to weight gain and prevent the proper nutrients to remain healthy.

To address this issue, many health systems have made screening for food insecurity a common practice. When a caregiver within the emergency room, clinic or medical practice identifies food insecurity, organizations have begun coordinating the registration for SNAP and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs. 

Some hospitals are taking it a step further to combat food insecurity in their communities. ProMedica, a hospital system based in Toledo, Ohio, began a program in 2013 that reclaimed tens of thousands of pounds of unused food from a local casino and their 12 hospitals to provide approximately 50,000 meals annually. Another provider, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, became a USDA Food Service Program site, providing more than 200 free lunches a day to children up to age 17. The hospital also started a food prescription and pantry program to provide emergency food upon discharge, and sponsors tours of grocery stores and classes to help parents learn to cook healthy meals on a budget.

As health systems focus on prevention for their patient population, expanding food assistance services and collaborating with their communities makes sense. As Barbara Petee, executive director of The Root Cause Coalition and ProMedica's chief advocacy and government relations officer notes, “You can feed someone for a year for what it takes to care for then one day in the hospital.”

There’s no question that food is inextricably linked to our overall health and wellness. Unfortunately, hunger has an impact on more people than we realize. It’s time to connect those in need with the appropriate services and care. Hunger is a health issue that can be prevented.  

Topics: social determinants of health