November 19, 2019

The connection between food access and health

Why access to healthy food matters and what you can do for your family and community.

As a pediatrician, I care about children’s growth and development, as well as prevention of diseases. As a certified chef, I care about families cooking together and preparing food in healthy and culturally relevant ways. Not surprisingly, these 2 worlds overlap significantly. This is because access to nutritious food affects health and learning in so many ways. 

Access to food and health

Food security means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, 1 in 6 children in the United States live in food insecure households — meaning that families may have limited or uncertain access to food and might need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, like paying rent or medical bills rather than purchasing healthy foods.

And there are physical, developmental, educational, social, and emotional effects for children. Babies born to food insecure households are more likely to be underweight when they are born, which is associated with several health issues. Studies have found that food insecure school-age children suffer 2 to 4 times as many health problems as other children at the same income level. These include problems such as increased susceptibility to lead poisoning, developmental delays, poor growth, increased risk of depression and other mental health conditions, more frequent hospitalizations, and longer lengths of stay when hospitalized. Food insecure children also tend to have lower school achievement, are more likely to have to repeat a grade, and have more difficulties getting along with other children.

So, what do we do?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Talk to your doctor or someone at your or your child’s school if you have concerns about consistent access to healthy food. Federal nutrition programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as CalFresh in California); Women, Infants, Children, also known as WIC; and local programs like food pantries and farmers markets help improve access to healthy food, especially for families who need support during certain periods of time, such as over the summer when school is out and children don’t have access to their usual National School Breakfast and Lunch Program.

Cook and garden together

Sign up for healthy cooking classes through your local food bank, food pantries, or other local organizations. Many of these programs provide food to help you cook during the week after each class. Community gardens are also a great way to gain access to healthy, affordable food. Many of these programs are also coupled with nutrition education programs. Either way, cooking and gardening are great ways to spend time together as a family.

Speak up

Advocate for policies and programs that improve access to and use of nutritious food, decrease food insecurity, and make it easier for you and your family to stay healthy.

Recently, Kaiser Permanente announced that it is addressing food insecurity as an organization through a new initiative called Food for Life, which is a comprehensive approach for transforming the economic, social, and policy environments connected to food so that people across the nation have access to, and can afford, healthy food. The first steps have included a broadscale texting campaign to connect eligible California residents with CalFresh. Next will be a program to offer medically tailored meal delivery options for patients and their families. After evaluating their impact, the organization plans to expand Food for Life programs to members and communities across the United States.

Contributor: Emma Steinberg, MD