When most people think of the causes and risk factors for chronic disease one important risk factor is often overlooked: hunger. Recently, Feeding America – a network of food banks across the United States – performed an extensive study on hunger across the country. Results from the study show that many families right here in southern Wisconsin are food insecure. That means these families do not have reliable access to quality, nutritious and affordable food.
Being food insecure means these families struggle with difficult choices every day. Choices like deciding between paying basic bills or paying for food. The stress from these decisions and the food choices these families or individuals are forced to make come at a high cost. Living without regular, nutritious food can cost you your health.
Food insecurity in southern Wisconsin According to statistics provided by Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin – a member of the Feeding America network – hunger is a serious problem for many of our friends and neighbors:
• 1 in 8 Wisconsin residents struggle with hunger
• 1 in 5 children living in Wisconsin struggle with hunger
• In southern Wisconsin, Second Harvest meets nearly 1 million requests for service each year
• Most families struggling with hunger live in a household that brings in less than $20,000 per year
These families are making difficult choices. Many end up eating expired food, with a large majority forced to turn to inexpensive – but unhealthy – foods to feed themselves and their children.
Health issues linked to food insecurity.
“Health problems can start before birth and last a lifetime,” says Dr. Megan Jensen, a Family Medicine provider at Dean Clinic – Sun Prairie.
For pregnant women who don’t eat the right kinds of food – or who don’t eat enough of those foods – the risk of pregnancy and birth complications rises. According to a study commissioned by Feeding America in 2009, babies born to women suffering from hunger have lower birth weights and children in homes struggling with food insecurity have delayed development, have a harder time developing a secure attachment to their parents and experience learning difficulties in early life.
The health issues and health needs of children who grow up without enough food can become chronic.
“Children growing up in food insecure homes are at a greater risk of suffering long-lasting health problems, oral health problems and a poorer overall physical quality of life,” says Dr. Jensen. “Some of these health issues can lead to hospitalizations and the need for expensive medical care.”
As children enter school, the impact of hunger on their behavior can include:
• Higher rates of truancy and tardiness
• Mood swings
These behavioral issues can persist into adulthood – causing problems in college, the workplace and other interpersonal relationships. Feeding America’s Child Food Insecurity study shows chronic illness that starts in childhood also diminishes the quality of life in adulthood.
Adults facing food insecurity are at an increased risk for a variety of chronic diseases, most notably diabetes and heart disease. Because families and individuals do not have reliable access to affordable produce – sometimes due to being unemployed or under-employed or simply not having a way to get to and from a grocery store – studies show those living in hunger often turn to inexpensive, unhealthy food choices like fast food.
“Fast foods and processed foods are typically high in salt, sugar and saturated fat, all of which can contribute to a person becoming obese, developing high blood pressure and heart disease or type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. Jensen. “Fresh, nutritious and unprocessed foods are vital to good health because they provide our bodies with the nutrients needed to fight off infection and function properly.”
Hunger is also a serious concern for older adults. In fact, a recent Feeding America and National Foundation to End Senior Hunger study found that the number of seniors who don’t always know where their next meal will come from doubled between 2001 and 2011.
Seniors who struggle with hunger are more likely to experience:
• Heart attack
• Congestive heart failure
All of these illnesses are costly. Treatment is expensive and these added costs for people living on a fixed or limited income can be a difficult burden.
Who is most affected by food insecurity?
Hunger does not discriminate. Food insecurity is a problem people of all ethnicities, religions, and educational backgrounds struggle with daily. However, because minorities including African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by poverty and unemployment, they can also be disproportionately affected by food insecurity.
According to Feeding America, one in four African American households are food insecure, more than one in three African American children live in a food insecure home and African Americans are three times as likely to receive charitable food assistance when compared to their white, non-Hispanic peers.
For individuals and families living with hunger there is help available. Aside from government programs that provide assistance in purchasing food, area non-profits including Second Harvest work to fill the plates of our neighbors in need.
Second Harvest’s programs provide food to those in need through multiple programs. In addition to providing traditional and mobile food bank programs, Second Harvest runs a Food Rescue program that picks up food from area grocery stores, inspects and then distributes fruits, vegetables, dairy products and frozen meats to those in need. During the summer, Second Harvest supports local programs that provide meals to school aged children who participate in the free or reduced school meal programs during the school year.
Dean & St. Mary’s are proud to be community partners with Second Harvest. Over the long-standing partnership, Dean & St. Mary’s employees volunteer at local food pantries across the region, employees have held many food drives and the organization is a part of the HungerCare coalition, a local initiative focused on educating healthcare professionals about the signs of hunger. HungerCare also gives healthcare providers tools necessary to empower parents, children and families to make nutritious food choices leading to better long-term health.
Most recently, Dean & St. Mary’s awarded Second Harvest with a “Helping to Improve the Health of Dane County” grant to help set up the Diabetes Wellness Program. This newly launched program provides food insecure patients with free diabetes-appropriate food along with tailored nutrition education to help better control their diabetes. There are currently 22 patients registered for the program with a goal of registering 100 people by the end of 2016. While the initial phase of the program is limited to Dane County, there are plans to expand the program to Rock and Sauk Counties over the next two years.
Second Harvest serves a large portion of southern Wisconsin. If you are in need of food assistance, they want to help.
Here are just a few ways you can find food assistance:
• Dial 2-1-1. This line will also offer information on other support services you may qualify for.
• FoodShare Wisconsin helps to pay for food via debit card at local grocery stores.
• Mobile pantries run by Second Harvest offer clients 50 – 75 pounds of food per visit to help make ends meet.
You can find more information about these services – and all of the services provided by Second Harvest – online at secondharvestmadison.org.
It takes a lot of time and energy to provide these vital services to our friends and neighbors. Second Harvest offers a variety of ways for you to get involved:
• Volunteer at a mobile food pantry – Donate your time to help food pantry clients directly
. • Organize a food and funds drive – Organize friends, family and neighbors to collect non-perishable foods or money for donation directly to the food pantry.
• Donate food to your local pantry – For every 1.2 pounds of food donated, Second Harvest can provide one meal.
• Donate funds – For every $1 donated, Second Harvest can provide three meals.
If you are interested in volunteering, sponsoring a food drive or donating food or funds to Second Harvest, you can find more information online at secondharvestmadison.org.