Food insecurity and low nutritional awareness contribute to multiple chronic health conditions in patients across the United States. Some diseases linked to food insecurity include hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, coronary heart failure, and kidney disease, just to name a few. Food insecurity is a persistent, growing issue, as many low-income urban and rural areas have communities with few—if any—choices for healthy options that are within a reasonable distance. When paired with inequitable transportation access, this issue only gets worse.
Stopgap measures to combat food insecurity with community gardens, food trucks, school lunch programs, and mobile health screenings can make meaningful improvements. However, even these programs are hindered by shortages in funding, public interest, and awareness, especially as it pertains to health and food literacy.
This week on the Beacon, we will dissect the issue of food insecurity, the ways it impacts health outcomes in patients over time, and the importance nutritional awareness plays in reducing vulnerabilities, addressing health equity, and driving value-based care.
What is Food Insecurity?
Food insecurity is defined as a lack of reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Nearly 50 million people in the United States experience food insecurity, making it one of the country’s most prevalent health and nutritional concerns.
Based on a survey conducted by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), this issue can range in severity from individuals worrying about whether their food supply would last until their next source of income to not eating for a day or more due to insufficient food access. The latter represented the survey’s most severe outcome for households with children.
Food insecurity is especially prevalent in areas with limited or no access to affordable and nutritious food, called food deserts. Food deserts are present in rural and urban areas alike and are typically concentrated in low-income areas. The lack of access to healthy foods in these communities is a huge driver of health disparities and high rates of chronic disease, further worsening the overall health and life quality of individuals and families who are food insecure.
What Barriers Contribute to Food Insecurity?
As the healthcare industry maneuvers toward the prioritizing health equity and addressing social determinants of health (SDoH), the known and complex correlations between health status and socioeconomic factors are taking the limelight, and it’s about time.
There are many reasons why individuals and families can experience food insecurity, including:
- Losing a job or income
- Having low or limited income
- Living in an area classified as a food desert
- Not having adequate access to transportation
- Having few options for affordable, nutritious, or fresh foods
- Low nutritional awareness and education at a generational level
- Having certain physical or mental health conditions
Along with lack of access to financial security and education, food insecurity can be an issue that persists for generations among families, especially in certain vulnerable communities. These vulnerabilities may be even further complicated by certain pre-existing medical conditions. According to research by the USDA, adults with a mental health disability are up to five times more likely to live in a household that is food insecure.
Nutritional Awareness is Crucial for Improved Population Health
Increasing nutritional awareness through patient education programs, health campaigns, or other means may work to bring attention to the food insecurity crisis in the United States, further driving support for grassroots efforts and wider-reaching initiatives that will improve healthy food access to millions of people nationwide. An important step that healthcare organizations can take at the patient level is to assess their populations for environmental, behavioral, and socioeconomic barriers alongside overall health factors. If food insecurity is found to be an issue in a particular population, increasing education and connecting patients to resources such as food banks is recommended.
Food insecurity is never an issue that emerges suddenly—it can be a generational experience that persists for many years, if not decades. As such, it is not a problem that is easily eradicated. But with appropriate measures and support, individuals and families can be connected to the resources they need to live healthier lives.
To find out how Lightbeam can best help your organization identify and address health inequities, email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask us a question or schedule a call.
By Brian Conrad, BSN, RN
Virtual Care Navigator