Children are especially vulnerable to hunger. Much of their brain development occurs before preschool, for example, so children consistently need high levels of quality nutrients during this sensitive period.
Without adequate nutrition, youngsters don’t get the developmental building blocks needed for learning and positive behaviors, and those deficits are hard to compensate for later in life, said Deborah Frank, MD, founder of Children’s HealthWatch and professor of child health and well-being at Boston University School of Medicine.
“People tend to consider the issue of hunger as just an economic issue,” the pediatrician and researcher said. “In fact, it’s a very serious health and child development issue.”
Dr. Frank is one of the speakers at Come to the Table, a half-day summit about hunger and health in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2014. In partnership with the Alliance to End Hunger, ProMedica is holding the Capitol Hill summit to encourage healthcare providers nationwide to address hunger as a health issue – and federal legislators to protect food-related policies and programs.
“I’m very alarmed by the fact that food insecurity is so very common among families with children,” Dr. Frank said. “Good food is the cheapest medicine.”
Statistics show more than 50 million people in the United States, including 17 million children, do not know where they will get their next meal at some point every year. Households with children are the most likely to lack adequate food, especially single-parent households.
Healthcare providers and organizations should help ensure families have adequate nutrition, Dr. Frank said. Some hospitals and clinics offer parents the chance to apply for the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program, and some hospitals have food pantries. But there needs to be more widespread efforts, she said.
ProMedica, Dr. Frank said, has done a good job of addressing hunger as a health issue. Among other programs, ProMedica is repackaging unserved food from businesses and hospital cafeterias, as well as starting to screen patients for hunger. Patients who are identified as needing assistance during a screening receive an emergency food supply at discharge and are connected to additional community resources.
Come to the Table
The U.S. healthcare industry needs to be creative in its approach to hunger and health, Dr. Frank said.
Healthcare providers and organizations already help patients apply for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, so they should take it a step further and evaluate whether those same people could get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, Dr. Frank said. Much of the required information is the same for both, she said.
Still, Dr. Frank said, ending U.S. hunger also will take favorable public policies, such as funding for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
“This is not a problem that can be solved by the healthcare sector alone,” Dr. Frank said.
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