In the US, access to quality health care and nutritious food is not equitable or guaranteed for everyone. Millions of Americans face this access challenge and, as such, experience additional hurdles in maintaining their overall health and well-being.
As of 2020, the US Department of Agriculture reported that around 10.5 percent of US households had experienced food insecurity, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for their family members. That’s one in ten families who struggle with reliable access to sufficient, nutritious food to lead active and healthy lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this number jumps to 57 percent when looking solely at Medicaid populations, thus highlighting the prevalence of food insecurity among marginalized populations.
The importance of addressing food insecurity and nutrition access cannot be overstated, as its relationship to health outcomes and the increased cost of care is well-documented, and I’ve experienced it firsthand.
By meeting people where they are, food as medicine initiatives serve as a lifeline for individuals.
For many Americans, the desire to eat better and adopt healthier dietary habits is constrained by the lack of financial resources, transportation, access to healthy and nutritious foods, and nutrition education regarding which foods can genuinely make a positive impact on their diets. Nutrition education plays a crucial role in empowering individuals to make informed choices about the foods they consume and to understand the importance of a balanced diet, proper portion sizes, and the health benefits of incorporating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into their meals.
I still remember the shame I felt visiting a food pantry for the first time. My family was going through a tough time financially, and our daughters both have a food-related condition and needed a specific diet that was financially out of reach. Despite being enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Medicaid, we still came up short. To make matters worse, I quickly learned the foods we needed were not consistently available at the food pantry.
Addressing food insecurity and improving access to nutritious food require a multi-faceted approach that addresses immediate hunger as well as invests in the long-term health and well-being of everyone.
A holistic approach to address disparities and health equity through food and nutrition is needed, as affordable nutrition access plays a key role in improving health outcomes and reducing health-care costs for underserved and marginalized populations. This can result in long-term cost savings for both individuals and health plans, as it prevents and manages chronic diseases and reduces the need for expensive medical interventions. This is the promise of food as medicine.
Every person's health needs and dietary requirements are unique. A person-centered approach recognizes this individuality and tailors nutritional interventions to meet the specific needs of each individual. Whether someone has dietary restrictions, chronic conditions, cultural preferences, or specific health conditions, a person-centered approach ensures that their dietary plan is customized to address their unique circumstances.
When individuals actively participate in decisions about their dietary choices, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to making positive changes. This sense of engagement, ownership, and involvement can lead to higher compliance with dietary recommendations, resulting in better health outcomes.
By meeting people where they are, food as medicine initiatives serve as a lifeline for individuals in rural and urban areas, ensuring they have access to the nutrition they need to lead healthier lives. Beyond the immediate health impact on individuals, addressing food insecurity and improving nutrition in underserved areas has far-reaching benefits for the community as a whole. In both urban areas experiencing disinvestment and rural communities struggling with limited resources, low access to healthy food options perpetuates cycles of poor health and socioeconomic challenges. Improved nutrition can lead to reduced health-care costs as a healthier population is less burdened by the many chronic diseases associated with poor diets.
Promoting equitable access to nutritious food aligns with general health equity principles. Disparities in access to healthy food often disproportionately affect marginalized populations, including low-income families and communities of color. Addressing these inequalities and creating opportunities for all Americans to access fresh and healthy food are imperative to impact health equity, food insecurity, and health outcomes.