March is National Nutrition Month, a nutrition education and information campaign created annually in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This month, we will focus on various aspects of nutrition on our blog. Here, Kimberly Hageman tackles food insecurity.

Kimberly Hageman, MD, is a family medicine physician at Family Medicine – Milton. She is also an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

Kimberly Hageman, MD, is a family medicine physician at Family Medicine – Milton. She is also an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

We know that nutrition affects all aspects of health and wellbeing, spanning across the lifecycle. We also know that not everyone has the ability to afford or access nutritional foods. This is referred to as food insecurity, meaning that a person cannot afford and access adequate food and beverage options for healthy living. Food insecurity affects people of all ages, from infants t to the elderly. Some age groups have unique challenges that pose even greater risk if healthy options are limited.

Food Insecurity: A Growing Problem

As many as 49 million Americans have struggled with food insecurity in the past year. One in five U.S. families with children under age six years old are identified as food insecure.

Here in Vermont, we face similar challenges with food insecurity.

  • Over 13 percent of Vermont households are food insecure.
  • Almost 20 percent of Vermont children and 7.5 percent of Vermont’s seniors live in food insecure households.
  • From 2010–2013, the rate of food insecurity in seniors in Vermont increased by 65 percent. 

Hunger’s Effect on Children

Children are greatly affected by food insecurity because they are growing and developing. Proper nutrition is crucial during this time.

Good nutrition is essential for proper growth and development in children: adequate intake of nutrients is particularly important in childhood, when rapid body growth and brain growth must be supported, especially during early childhood, growth spurts, and puberty.

There are substantial, lasting physical, emotional, and social consequences when children experience food insecurity.

Hunger’s Effect on the Elderly

Seniors are also especially vulnerable to the effects of poor nutrition because they are often experiencing a multitude of other issues that put them at risk for malnutrition. The quality of life and success in aging is severely diminished in older adults who are food insecure.

The Health Consequences of Hunger

Research shows that food insecure people and families experience poor health consequences. There are increased hospitalizations, risk of developmental delays in young children, iron deficiency, malnutrition, and obesity. Rates of infection, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are higher. There can be poor wound healing, altered effects of medications, and even increased rates of death in seniors who are food insecure. And just as in children and teens, there can be a great impact on psychological and emotional health, including, depression, anxiety, and self-neglect. All of these poor health outcomes increase cost related to healthcare, by almost 50 percent.

The impacts of hunger reach far beyond physical health. Food insecurity influences how kids feel about themselves, how they interact with the world around them, their ability to learn and their overall wellbeing and happiness. Kids can have lower school achievement, increased grade repetition, absenteeism.

How to Stop Hunger

In Vermont, we are fortunate to have organizations like Hunger Free Vermont and the school-based meals programs to help families with food access issues.

We know that school-based breakfast and lunch programs help improve nutrition, academic performance, behavior problems, and social interactions. In many communities across the state, there are other organizations to help with improving health outcomes by targeting the complex issue of food insecurity. Then maybe we can help to interrupt and stop the cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

Based on recommendations from Hunger Free Vermont, healthcare providers are starting to recognize the importance of screening for food insecurity. Screening will hopefully help families have better access to healthy food options. A great starting place is the Community Health Team Social Workers, who can work with patients to tap into community resources.

Kimberly Hageman, MD, is a family medicine physician at Family Medicine – Milton. She is also an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

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