Conference Coverage

Food insecurity called urgent issue you must address



You have a responsibility to screen families for food insecurity, intervene to help them, and advocate on behalf of those experiencing or at risk of food insecurity, according to Kofi Essel, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington.

A food distribution site in Tamarac, Fla., is indicative of food insecurity, a result of job layoffs and income disparity linked with the COVID-19 pandemic. YES Market Media/Shutterstock

A food distribution site in Tamarac, Fla., is indicative of food insecurity, a result of job layoffs and income disparity linked with the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than one in four adults are dealing with food access hardships during the pandemic, Dr. Essel said at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Food insecurity is often interchangeable with hunger and refers to limited or uncertain availability of foods that are nutritious and safe.

“Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes,” according to a 2020 New York Times photo feature on food insecurity by Brenda Ann Kenneally that Dr. Essel quoted.

The lived experience of food insecure households includes food anxiety, a preoccupation with being able to get enough food that takes up cognitive bandwidth and prevents people from being able to focus on other important things. Another feature of food-insecure homes is a monotony of diet, which often involves an increase in caloric density and decrease in nutritional quality. As food insecurity grows more dire, adults’ food intake decreases, and then children’s intake decreases as adults seek out any way to get food, including “socially unacceptable” ways, which can include food pantries and bartering for food.

Food insecurity is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes even after accounting for other confounders, including decreased overall health, mental health, and educational outcomes. It’s also associated with an increase in developmental delays, hospitalizations, iron deficiency, asthma, and birth defects, among other problems. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s associated with both an increase and a decrease in obesity in the research.

Megan J. Gray, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics and population health at Dell Medical School at the The University of Texas at Austin, attended Dr. Essel’s session because food insecurity during COVID-19 now affects about half her patients, according to screening research she’s conducted.

“I wanted to learn more about the nuances of screening and using language and talking points that are helpful with families and with staff in building a culture of discussing food insecurity in our clinics,” Dr. Gray said in an interview. “What I’ve learned in my clinic is that if we don’t ask about it, families aren’t telling us – food insecurity is hiding in plain sight.”

She particularly appreciated Dr. Essel’s slides on the progression of food insecurity and how they acknowledged the mental health burden of food insecurity among parents.

“Right now during COVID-19, I see more patients I would call ‘socially complex’ rather than ‘medically complex,’ ” she said. “We all need to get a crash course in social work and Dr. Essel’s presentation is a great starting place.”


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