According to USDA statistics, 41 million Americans are food insecure, which is directly related to living below the poverty line. 90% of those affected by hunger are children, and 10% by adults. Given the rising inflation and war in Ukraine, food costs have increased significantly, leaving more of our fellow Americans in a dire state.
The White House hosted a conference in September focused on ending hunger and improving nutrition across the nation, as the U.S. witnessed higher rates of food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic. The last conference held focused on this significant issue was 50 years ago This conference intends to convene stakeholders to accelerate action to reduce hunger, improve nutrition education and create a society that is functioning at an optimal level.
People who experience food insecurity also experience health issues such as obesity, diabetes, depression, high levels of stress, anxiety, and long-term consequences due to less access and affordability to nutritious food. While there are programs such as SNAP, food pantries, community based programs that have made a significant impact by serving more than 40 million Americans, we would need to identify food insecurity as a disease state and empower the healthcare ecosystem to address this proactively.
Here are 5 ways healthcare can address food insecurity to lead to better health outcomes
- Creating nutrition education programs for clinical teams
Clinicians are in the best position to able to advise patients to take charge of their health at the right time. But most medical school programs do not train physicians in the Nutrition & Wellness space, creating a knowledge gap and an opportunity gap to create proactive healthcare, reduce healthcare costs and reduce disease state. Creating a nutrition education course and embedding it into the medical curriculum would enhance clinicians’ knowledge on how to guide patients better and help them take proactive measures to eat right and prevent chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular concerns. Clinicians can team up with a behavioral therapist or a registered dietician, and take actions that can keep patients away from the hospital.
- Implementing SDOH data in a standardized format
Creating health equity starts with us planting the seed at the very beginning, starting with data. The Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT strongly recommends implanting health equity by design, as a standard, where social determinants of health such as economic stability, education access and quality, housing stability , health care access and quality along with LGBTQ + data such as sexual orientation and gender are included. This information when integrated and made accessible in a secured manner, helps one to determine what really impacts patients health. By implementing this model, the healthcare ecosystem is well equipped to guide patients to the right resources and improve their health in an accelerated format.
- Integrating foodRX as a core curriculum
Once a patient’s complete status has been identified, a healthcare provider can further guide how people need to alter their diet/lifestyle. This can directly lead them to taking action to improve their health. Being able to educate patients and give them access to nutritious food to improve health outcomes has been proven by Geisinger, who created the Fresh Food Farmacy model, where patients get screened for diabetes along with their socio-economic factors. If they are at high risk, they are channeled to a nutritionist and a local food bank, receiving tailored, nutritious meals weekly to improve their health outcomes. Now, if we can expand this concept to all health conditions and increase access to healthy foods, we will proactively meet patients at the right time and place at the correct cost.
4. Going deep on mental health
People who are faced with food insecurity experience greater levels of psychological stress. They are prone to have 275% higher levels of anxiety, 253% higher risk of depression, especially during the pandemic. By conducting a 360-degree survey of a patient, healthcare systems can expand their partnership with behavioral health therapists to further mitigate this impact. Viewing people at an intersection of culture, economic status, life experiences and genetic factors can empower healthcare to give them the right amount of care and the right type of care at the right time.
- Accelerating policy development for economic empowerment
Thirty five million Americans live in poverty, and 27 million American adults and children are food insecure. A big part of insecurity is evidently poverty. People cannot be empowered unless we have created an ecosystem that can support and set them up for success. One of the organizations that is doing tremendous work in this field is the World Food Bank. The WFB is focused on creating a sustainable circular loop system, where the organization educates small farmers in Africa on best farming practices, empowering them to be educated and be economically independent while solving food insecurity within their communities. Lifting people from food insecurity means that we need to lift them from poverty and we need to create strategic sustainable policies to be executed to make this happen.
- Food insecurity has a direct impact on healthcare – increase in disease state increase in healthcare costs, increase in physician burnouts
- Poverty and food insecurity are closely linked, We need to move into an empowerment mode to be able to lift and shift us into a more secure, independent country.
- Viewing patients in a 360-degree view by acknowledging their different aspects of life is important to give the right care at the right time.Last but not the least, we need empathy and major investments dedicated to organizations that are working in this field to make a larger impact for the greater good.
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