As a kid, I often accompanied my mother to the grocery store. Once we made it to the checkout line, I would help her fill the brown paper grocery bags with our food. One day, I found myself staring at the print emblazoned on the side of the bag. I was looking into the sad eyes of a little girl my age, along with an advertisement encouraging shoppers to donate food to feed hungry kids. I didn’t know that there were kids in our community going hungry, and I didn’t understand the underlying problems causing that hunger, but something about it all felt unfair.
Hunger is a difficult and chronic problem, symptomatic of poverty and families’ inability to make ends meet—no matter how hard they work. Today, hunger remains a problem for much of our population; 1 in 7 Coloradans face times where they do not have money for food. The statistics are also troubling among children (PDF), who show up at school hungry, and a growing body of research shows that hunger seriously affects kids’ ability to learn and grow. Without question, hunger is an important social determinant of health, and one we should talk about and act upon more than we already do. People who experience hunger are almost three times more likely to be in poor health, and nationwide, estimates of health care costs related to hunger are $130.5 billion annually (PDF). Hunger affects the health and quality of life of many of our neighbors, and as a systemic problem, it needs a systemic solution, especially within the health care system.
Thankfully, there are some efforts underway to address this issue, although there isn’t currently a statewide strategy. Kaiser Permanente Colorado has enabled providers and office staff to screen families for difficulties in accessing healthy foods. If food security is a problem, providers then connect them to Hunger Free Colorado to assist with solutions, such as enrolling them in SNAP or WIC, two public nutrition programs designed to help low-income families. Kaiser also has recently funded Doctors Care and Children’s Hospital Colorado to implement this same strategy, through their community benefit initiatives. And, Colorado is home to numerous food pantries and urban gardens, as well as organizations like Cooking Matters, for whom I’ve volunteered in the past, which teaches families to cook healthy, nutrient-rich meals on a budget.
We know we should do more to solve food security, and we urge other health care entities to get involved in this issue. The data and research are clear (PDF): when we address the underlying causes of hunger, we improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs. Therefore, our need to solve this problem is just as clear. I connected with that little girl on the grocery bag all those years ago, but now I understand the magnitude of the problem. The fight for food security continues, and it’s one we can’t allow Colorado to lose.