Food Insecurity

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just announced an important new public health program, encouraging us pediatricians to take an activist role in identifying and managing children of families struggling with food insecurity, a state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.  Food insecurity is not a trivial issue in our community.  Fortunately the numbers have decreased since peaking in 2007.  However, still almost 15 million American children are chronically food stressed.  Locally, 1/7 Ocean County households are food insecure with family of 4 “Real Cost of Living” income of < $62,936: 64,000 people (25,800 kids, or 19.3%). While average family income has been rising steadily in the past few years, so has poverty; 2000-2010 rates increased from 6.7-11%.

The AAP notes several important points about food insecurity in children:

  • Children who live in households that are food insecure, even at the lowest levels, get sick more often, recover more slowly from illness, have poorer overall health and are hospitalized more frequently.
  • Children and adolescents affected by food insecurity are more likely to be iron deficient, and preadolescent boys dealing with hunger issues have lower bone density. Early childhood malnutrition also is tied to conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
  • Lack of adequate healthy food can impair a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence. –
  • “As is the case with many childhood health conditions, being malnourished or not getting enough healthy food early in life has effects that can last well into adulthood,”

It’s such a frought issue.  Many people are loathe to mention it as it engenders feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, confusion, and hopelessness.  They don’t know where to turn or whom to trust.  But AAP researchers indicate that 97% of families at risk can be identified by asking 2 simple questions:

  1. In the last year have you worried that your food would run out before you have money for more?
  2. Do your groceries purchased always last until you have money to buy more?

Making this part of a regular check up can take much of the stigma out of beginning this difficult but important conversation.

If the answer to either of the above is “yes” for you or anyone you know then please recall the saying from a very different context,–“if you see something, say something.”

Here is a list of functioning food pantries in Ocean County.  The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation runs its “Soul Kitchen.” The BEAT Center in Silverton Plaza, Toms River, coordinates the efforts of these and related organizations.

I would not advance any partisan political argument one way or the other here.  But I do think that we should remember 3 facts when we hear politicians advocate cutting or limiting access to nutritional support programs:

  1. Almost half of all recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs (SNAP), AKA “food stamps” are children.
  2. Whatever the cause of the family’s problem, surely the children are not at fault and should not be punished,
  3. The financial impact of not addressing the long term effects of poor nutrition on children–in health expenditures, lost tax revenue from citizens unable to complete their education and enter productive careers, and even law enforcment costs when many of these lives degenerate into criminal/antisocial activity–to say nothing of the human costs–is substantial.

Do they outweigh the costs of SNAP?  Not for me to say here. All I will say is that as a father, a pediatrician, and an American, I cannot stand the thought of any child going to school hungry.  I am proud to be a member of the AAP for taking on this serious and necessary challenge to help those youngest and most vulnerable among us.

Let’s all try and do our part.  Thanks for following.

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