While most of us are celebrating National Nutrition Month with plenty of food, over 37 million people are dealing with hunger in the US with over 11 million of them children, according to 2019 Feeding America Statistics. 1 We may just think of food insecurity as “missing a few meals”, but the problem is much bigger. Children that suffer food insecurity deal with lifelong effects on their growth, behavior, education and even earning potential. Carinne Deeds, a Policy Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum notes that kids in food insecure homes are behind their food-secure peers in cognitive, emotional and physical development. They are also more likely to be hospitalized due to poor health compared to food-secure children. 2
In addition, research indicates that food insecure children are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues than their well-fed peers. They are also more likely to have smaller gains in reading and math, miss school more frequently and have a smaller chance of high school graduation. According to a study from No Kid Hungry, adults that suffered food insecurity as children “are not as well prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform effectively in the contemporary workforce.” 3 This could impact their ability to be hired or sustain work.
Dietitians are in the perfect profession to advocate for those suffering food insecurity. We know the impact of malnutrition and can provide simple, sustainable solutions to those in need. We understand the need to collaborate with others and are poised to create work for ourselves in this important public problem. Below are a few RD champions in this area:
Clancy Cash Harrison is a dietitian, national keynote speaker, and Food Dignity® expert. Her job is to break down the barriers to healthy food access for everyone on every street corner. After 20 plus years fighting hunger, she knows they must shift their approach to nutrition and food access to end the food insecurity crisis. Much of her work includes setting up non-profits as member agencies of the Feeding America network. In all cases, the non-profit works with a food insecurity population but they do not focus on food. As a member agency of Feeding America, the organization transforms into a mini-food pantry. Her most recent collaboration was with a free medical clinic in Wilkes Barre, PA. The medical clinic now offers fresh produce to their patients after their medical visit.
Clancy advises that the medical field must screen everyone for food insecurity at every visit. “The reality is anyone can struggle with affording healthy food at any time. Yet, many healthcare professional jump directly into healthy eating guidelines under the assumptions the patient as access to or can afford fresh produce, lean meats, fish, and dairy. I am currently working with the Pennsylvania Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics. We are establishing 20 dyads across the state of PA. The pediatrician will screen for food insecurity and refer to a partnering food pantry who offers a variety of healthy food options.”
Laura Poland, an RD in Columbus, Ohio states “Working at Children’s Hunger Alliance, a state-wide non-profit agency dedicated to ending childhood hunger has been a great career move. As the Director of Nutrition Education and Physical Activity, I get to direct the education work of the agency. My team of dietitians supports the sponsored programs (child care centers, in-home child care & afterschool) we work with to improve the health and well-being of the food-insecure kids they serve. In addition to working with our sponsored sites, we have developed programming to work with incarcerated individuals and their families to end the cycle that is associated with hunger leading to violence. I’m finding how important nutrition education can be to help end food-insecurity in Ohio.”
Jennifer Reed is an RD, CDE in Memphis. She collaborated with her food bank for the past 2 years to provide 2 boxes of food for patients on Medicare, Medicaid or self-pay.
Not all RDs in the food insecurity arena are paid. A few RDs have found creative ways to help their communities through volunteer work. Colleen Wysocki-Woods, MS, RDN owner of Zest Nutrition, started a website & Facebook page called FoCo Food Assistance to share opportunities to acquire food and calories for free or low cost with Colorado State University students. She, as well as volunteer nutrition students, wrote blogs and posted "Deals on Meals" about where people could get free food in social settings without the stigma of going to food banks or telling people they were low income. She moved to California recently for work and passed the site on to another nutrition graduate to carry on.
Sarah Skovran, Owner, Sarah Skovran Nutrition PC Director, Child Hunger Program, AIO Food Pantry is the director of the Child Hunger Program for her local food pantry, which serves Knox County in Maine. They run several programs and are entirely volunteer-based (including her position). Sarah notes their biggest program is the weekend backpack program, which provides ingredients for one weekend meal plus snacks to approximately 230 children in 16 schools. Volunteers meet to pack bags weekly and then drive them to the schools for distribution. She plans the menu for each week's bag and does the purchasing, mostly from the state's food bank.
If you’re seeking ways to solve the problem of food insecurity, start small. Here are a few ideas:
Run a canned food drive for a local food pantry
Volunteer at a local soup kitchen
Start a mini outside pantry for non-perishable food at a church or rec center
Provide food demos to low income adults at a community center
Volunteer to pack weekend “power packs” for kids at the Free Store
Look for local or state grants to start a program that targets food insecurity.
- feedingamerica.org › hunger-in-america › fact