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December 28, 2017
Food Insecurity – Persistent, Complex and Solvable

Project Bread Board Chair and Chief of Pediatrics at Mass General Hospital, Ronald Kleinman shares his thoughts on food insecurity, offering a thorough depiction of how low food security influences health outcomes of children in Massachusetts. His thoughts highlight the importance of our work. Donate now

Food insecurity is a solvable public health problem.

Donate Now- help feed hungry kidsAs Chief of Pediatrics at Mass General Hospital, I witness young patients endure many illnesses and ailments. These conditions oftentimes cannot be prevented and unfortunately, some are incurable.

The one diagnosis, however, that continues to shock me – no matter how many times I deliver it – is food insecurity.

I have studied hunger, food insecurity, and the many health risks associated with chronic exposure to these conditions. I know that the physical and emotional impact is lasting. I see the stigma and fear families are forced to bear when struggling to overcome it – particularly against the backdrop of day-to-day life in an affluent state. Still, giving a food insecurity diagnosis is jarring – because I know it's preventable.

The USDA defines food insecurity as, "a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity." More simply put, food insecurity is worrying about where your next meal will come from or not having enough food. Today, 1 in 7 Massachusetts children meets that criteria.

Children in food-insecure households are at greater risk of diminished physical and mental health, longer recoveries from illness, higher hospitalization rates, and a greater incidence of developmental and educational delays than their peers in food-secure households. In addition to the obvious burden food insecurity puts on families, it also places an economic strain on our state at a macro level, by contributing to increased healthcare costs and reduced productivity of our workforce.

There is no simple path to solving food insecurity. Still, like many of you, I am committed to preventing and ending hunger in Massachusetts. Our progress toward a scalable and sustainable solution is contingent on addressing the public knowledge gap that exists today. To that end, I want to share some of what I've learned through my work as a physician and Chairman of the Board for Project Bread, in the hope that you will use it to improve and expand the dialogue around food insecurity in your own network.

You might not recognize hunger

Thousands of children, here in our own cities and towns, are struggling with a myriad of poor health outcomes because of chronic food insecurity.  We aren't always attuned to suffering happening in our communities because food insecurity can look quite different from what we have been conditioned to imagine. 

  • It is not possible to identify a child who is food insecure by looking at her.  She may be overweight because when food is available, it’s relatively low-cost, high-calorie food, low in important nutrients to support good health. She may be underweight because her parents are regularly combining meals and serving "brunch."  
  • A working adult is present in ⅔ of food insecure homes with children in the US. Low wages and the high cost of living leave many low income families without enough money to pay for groceries and other expenses such as child care and transportation.
  • Many impacted by food insecurity do not seek assistance. Some may not identify hunger as a root cause of symptoms – headaches, stomach aches, feeling faint, or even anxiety – that they may suffer from every day. Others may not know who to ask, or feelings of shame may prevent them from asking for support.

Preventing and ending food insecurity will be a process as complex as the issue itself

An effective remedy for food insecurity demands more than providing meals to those who need them.  Meals, while an obvious and crucial part of the solution, provide only temporary relief.  To end food insecurity in Massachusetts, we must feed those who are hungry today and simultaneously address the factors which contribute to its persistent presence in our society.  These include, an imbalance between wages and cost of living; lack of access to affordable, safe nutritious food; and a lack of public understanding that perpetuates stigma.

Project Bread leverages a multi-pronged approach to address each piece of this multi-dimensional problem. Through advocacy, access, and education, Project Bread works to prevent and end hunger in Massachusetts. With your support, we can solve this health issue. 

Will you join me in making a generous donation this holiday season to help feed hungry children and families across the Commonwealth?

Donate Now- help feed hungry kids

Author(s): Ronald Kleinman, MD, is Chief of the Department of Pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Physician-in-Chief at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) and Partners Pediatrics.

Filed under: Get the Facts, News and Events