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Addressing Hunger as Part of Health

Early on a cold Saturday morning, a man waited his turn at a mobile food pantry in Albuquerque. It was his first stop that day to take care of the needs of his wife and their two grandchildren.

鈥淢y retirement income doesn鈥檛 cover everything they need,鈥 said the former truck driver, who identified himself only as Jefferson. 鈥淏efore coming here, I鈥檝e wondered how I would feed them properly. It鈥檚 embarrassing to say this, but there were times we would visit car dealerships to eat a meal. They would have their cookouts on weekends with hot dogs and hamburgers.鈥

Like Jefferson, about 40 million Americans live in households that don鈥檛 always have enough food for everyone in the family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

鈥漈he consequences of food insecurity affect individuals across their lifespan,鈥 said Jessica Hager, manager of health and nutrition for Feeding America庐, the nation鈥檚 largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

The cost of food insecurity
Working-age adults who often go without enough food are at least 40% more likely to suffer from long-term health problems, according to a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even less severe food insecurity, according to the study, is associated with several chronic diseases. They include hypertension, heart disease, cancer, asthma and diabetes.

These conditions undermine the health and financial well-being of individuals and families. They also add to the cost of health care and health insurance.

A place at the table
In October, Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC) announced it is joining forces with Feeding America. A $1.2 million investment over two years builds on HCSC's longstanding commitment to addressing food insecurity.

In 2017, HCSC supported organizations that distributed more than 2 million pounds of food to 750,000 adults and children in their states as part of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Families庐 grant initiative.

Under the new collaboration with Feeding America, 26 food banks and pantries in their states are getting support to increase access to nutritious foods and improve diet quality. Each food bank will choose programs best for its community鈥檚 needs, such as:

  • Placing fresh produce, dairy and protein in areas with high visibility and using signs encouraging healthy food selection
  • Using community food kitchens to train adult members of food-insecure families for jobs in the food service industry
  • Providing pantries with nutrition guidelines

Providing pantries with nutrition guidelines
鈥淭he poor often have to make difficult tradeoffs when it comes to shopping for food,鈥 said Sonya Warwick, community director for Albuquerque-based Roadrunner Food Bank. Roadrunner is one of the organizations taking part in HCSC鈥檚 collaboration with Feeding America.

鈥淣early two-thirds of households say they must choose between either paying for utilities and transportation or for food when it comes to using their limited funds,鈥 Warwick said. 鈥淎nd that doesn鈥檛 even include needing to pay for housing and health care. Food banks give the hungry the extra cushion they sometimes need to feed their families.鈥

HCSC also is preparing to work with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Institute to help people who live in nutritional deserts 鈥 communities that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables and whole foods that make for a healthy diet.

According to the Institute鈥檚 CHM Hub庐 platform, 1.5 million HCSC members live in nutritional deserts.

Extending a helping hand
Twice a month, 76-year-old Louis Buard visits Our Community Pantry in South Dallas to put food on the table for him, his wife, two sons and a grandson. He says they struggle monthly with deciding how to spend his Social Security check. Though in the heart of a major U.S. city, his neighborhood is considered a food desert.

Our Community Pantry gets food from the North Texas Food Bank, one of the organizations taking part in HCSC's collaboration with Feeding America.

鈥淲e don鈥檛 throw any food away in our house,鈥 Buard said, leaning on a staff engraved with his nickname, Moses, as he shopped the pantry. 鈥淢oney can be tight. I pay for utilities first, like shelter, so that we have a place to sleep. After that comes medicine and food.鈥

Feeding America and its partners are working toward long-term solutions that will eliminate these damaging tradeoffs, Hager said.

鈥淩ecognizing food insecurity is a social determinant of health, it鈥檚 very important that we work with communities hand in hand 鈥 in addition to health care partners 鈥 because together we can end hunger.鈥

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