Food Insecurity Called Urgent Issue You Must Address

Tara Haelle

November 12, 2020

You have a responsibility to screen families for food insecurity, intervene to help them, and advocate on behalf of those experiencing or at risk of food insecurity, according to Kofi Essel, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Children's National Hospital in Washington.

More than one in four adults are dealing with food access hardships during the pandemic, Essel said at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Food insecurity is often interchangeable with hunger and refers to limited or uncertain availability of foods that are nutritious and safe.

"Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes," according to a 2020 New York Times photo feature  New York Times photo feature on food insecurity by Brenda Ann Kenneally that Essel quoted.

The lived experience of food insecure households includes food anxiety, a preoccupation with being able to get enough food that takes up cognitive bandwidth and prevents people from being able to focus on other important things. Another feature of food-insecure homes is a monotony of diet, which often involves an increase in caloric density and decrease in nutritional quality. As food insecurity grows more dire, adults' food intake decreases, and then children's intake decreases as adults seek out any way to get food, including "socially unacceptable" ways, which can include food pantries and bartering for food.

Food insecurity is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes even after accounting for other confounders, including decreased overall health, mental health, and educational outcomes. It's also associated with an increase in developmental delays, hospitalizations, iron deficiency, asthma, and birth defects, among other problems. Somewhat paradoxically, it's associated with both an increase and a decrease in obesity in the research.

Megan J. Gray, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and population health at Dell Medical School at the The University of Texas at Austin, attended Essel's session because food insecurity during COVID-19 now affects about half her patients, according to screening research she's conducted.

"I wanted to learn more about the nuances of screening and using language and talking points that are helpful with families and with staff in building a culture of discussing food insecurity in our clinics," Gray said in an interview. "What I've learned in my clinic is that if we don't ask about it, families aren't telling us – food insecurity is hiding in plain sight."

She particularly appreciated Essel's slides on the progression of food insecurity and how they acknowledged the mental health burden of food insecurity among parents.

"Right now during COVID-19, I see more patients I would call 'socially complex' rather than 'medically complex,' " she said. "We all need to get a crash course in social work and Essel's presentation is a great starting place."

Screening for Food Insecurity

Beginning in 2015, an AAP policy statement charged pediatricians to "screen and intervene" with regard to food insecurity and their patients, Essel said. The statement also called for pediatricians to advocate for programs and policies that end childhood food insecurity.

The policy statement recommended a validated two-question screening tool called the Hunger Vital Sign:

  1. "Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more."

  2. "Within the past 12 months, the food that we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more."

But in screening, you need to be conscious of how dignity intersects with food insecurity concerns, Essel said.

"We need to create dignity for our families," he said. "We need to create a safe environment for our families and use appropriate tools when necessary to be able to identify families that are struggling with food insecurity."

That need is seen in research on food screening. The Hunger Vital Signs questions can be asked with a dichotomous variable, as a yes/no question, or on a Likert scale, though the latter is a more complex way to ask.

A 2017 study found, however, that asking with "yes/no" answers missed more than a quarter of at-risk families. In the AAP survey using "yes/no" answers, 31% of families screened positive for being at risk of food insecurity, compared with 46% when the same question was asked on a Likert scale. It seems the ability to answer with "sometimes" feels "safer" than answering "yes," Essel said.

Another factor that potentially affects answers is how doctors ask. In a March 2020 study at a single primary care practice, 16% of families screened positive with yes/no responses to a food insecurity screen when the questions were written, compared with 10% of positive screens with verbal responses (P < .001).

Epidemiology of Food Insecurity

The most updated United States Department of Agriculture report on food insecurity released in September shows the United States finally reached prerecession levels in 2019, with 11% of families designated as "food insecure." But 2019 data cannot show what has occurred since the pandemic.

Further, the numbers are higher in households with children: Fourteen percent, or one in seven households with children, are experiencing food insecurity. Racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity have remained consistent over the past 2 decades, with about twice as many Black and Hispanic homes experiencing food insecurity as White homes.

More recent research using Census Household Pulse Surveys has found a tremendous increase in food insecurity for children in 2020. One in three Black children and one in four Hispanic children are food insecure, according to these surveys. The rates are one in six for Asian households and one in ten for White households.

"The disparity is consistent," Essel said. "We see what COVID has done. We once may have described it as a great equalizer – everyone is touched in the same way – but the reality is, this is actually a great magnifier. It's revealing to us and magnifying disparities that have existed for far too long and has really allowed us to see it in a new way."

A big part of disparities in food insecurity is disparities in wealth, "the safety net or cushion for families when things go wrong," Essel said. The median wealth of White Americans in 2016 was $171,000, compared to $20,700 among Latinx Americans and $17,600 among Black Americans, according to the Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances.

Food Insecurity Interventions

Federal nutrition programs – such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and school meal programs – are key to addressing food insecurity, Essel said.

"They have a long track record of rescuing families out of poverty, of rescuing families from food security and improving overall health of families," he said.

But emergency food relief programs are important as well. Four in 10 families currently coming into food pantries are new recipients, and these resources have seen a 60% increase in clients, he said.

"This is utterly unreasonable for them to be able to manage," he said. "Food pantries are essential but inadequate to compensate for large numbers of families," even while they also may be the only option for families unable or unwilling to access federal programs. For example, for every one meal that food banks can provide, SNAP can provide nine meals, Essel said. Further, during times of economic downtown, every SNAP $1 spent generates $1.50 to $2 in economic activity.

Currently, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program provides benefits to families for school breakfast and lunch and has been extended through December 2021. Another federal pandemic response was to increase SNAP to the maximum household benefit for families, about $646 for a family of four, although 40% of households were already receiving the maximum benefit.

Food Insecurity Advocacy

You can advocate for any one of multiple pillars when it comes to food insecurity, Essel said. "Food cannot solve food insecurity by itself," he said. "We have to think about root causes – systemic causes – and think about unemployment, livable wage, systemic racism, oppression, an inequitable food system. All of these things are pillars that any of you can advocate for when recognizing a family that is struggling with food insecurity."

He offered several suggestions for advocacy:

  • Join your local AAP chapter and prioritize food insecurity.

  • Join a local antihunger task force.

  • Make your clinical environment as safe as possible for families to respond to questions about food insecurity.

  • Know what's happening in your community immigrant populations.

  • Provide up-to-date information to families about eligibility for federal programs.

  • Share stories through op-eds and letters to the editor, and by contacting congressional representatives and providing expert testimony to school boards and city councils.

  • Educate others about food insecurity through the above channels and on social media.

Jessica Lazerov, MD, a general pediatrician at Children's National Anacostia and assistant professor of pediatrics at George Washington University, Washington, said the session was fantastic.

"Essel went beyond the basics of food insecurity, delving into the root causes, potential solutions, and important considerations when screening for food insecurity in practice," Lazerov said in an interview. "I enjoyed his focus on advocacy, as well as the fact that he spent a bit of time reviewing how the COVID pandemic has affected food insecurity. I truly felt empowered to take my advocacy efforts a step further as Essel laid out concrete, actionable next steps, as well as a review of the most relevant and current information about food insecurity."

Essel, Lazerov, and Gray have no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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