By Deneece Ferrales
One in nine households in the United States experiences food insecurity, and this impacts an estimated 11 million children (Hunger and Health 101). According to Hunger and Health, households that report food insecurity face additional healthcare costs. This was true in every county in the United States.
In 2016, the total additional healthcare cost in U.S. families facing food insecurity was $52.9 billion, according to Map the Meal Gap, a national dataset. This indicates availability of food is central to positive health outcomes.
Central to food insecurity is the lack of access to healthy foods. A 2014 Hunger in America study found that 58% of households that used Feeding America food banks reported having at least one household member with high blood pressure, and 33% of those households reported having at least one household member with diabetes.
The connection between food insecurity and poor health outcomes is not only caused by lack of nutrition, which is needed for healthy body development at all stages of life, but also because of choices that low-income households are often forced to make resulting from food insecurity. According to Hunger and Health, 79% of households report choosing inexpensive, unhealthy food as a way of coping with food insecurity.
The following chart shows all coping mechanisms used:
To better understand the connection between food insecurity and healthcare outcomes, the following Seligman HK diagram offers a conceptual way of understanding the relationship between hunger and chronic disease.
In a nutshell, many people cannot afford food, much less healthier foods, which are often more expensive, necessary to maintain good health. Food insecurity has a direct impact on health outcomes.
To further exacerbate the problem, people who struggle to buy food will often struggle also with healthcare costs. Although there are options for paying medical costs such as Medicaid and other healthcare benefit programs, these programs may not pay for specialty care that becomes necessary due to chronic disease or the rising costs of prescriptions that often are necessary to manage a chronic illness. This becomes a frustrating cycle in which the patient cannot afford to change his or her diet and cannot afford the healthcare costs needed to fight disease exacerbated by food insecurity.
Our community cannot address healthcare access and affordability without addressing food insecurity. We must consider the impact food insecurity has on healthcare both for the individual and for our healthcare systems.
Deneece Ferrales, Ph.D., is director of health initiatives for Prosper Waco.