Working at the Intersection of Hunger and Health

Typically, when a patient with diabetes or high blood pressure visits their doctor, you may expect they receive counseling on what types of foods they should be eating. Although important, this practice oftentimes doesn’t consider if the patient has the means to eat healthy food. Now let’s take a moment to imagine a healthcare system that not only focuses on what the individual should eat but also strives to ensure that those patients struggling financially are connected to resources that will help them get healthy foods. That is the vision of the Food Insecurity Screening Community of Practice, a group of ten healthcare systems and six patient advisors working to streamline healthcare screening and referral processes for patients experiencing food insecurity. 

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” and typically involves a lack of available financial resources for food. In 2017, 11.5% of people living in King County experienced food insecurity, amounting to 244,170 individuals. People experiencing food insecurity report that they often run out of food and don’t have money to buy more.

When people can’t afford healthy, nutritious foods, they tend to have difficulty managing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. A poor diet worsens poor health conditions, resulting in more visits to the doctor and greater financial burden. Consequently, individuals experiencing food insecurity are often trapped in a cycle of worsening health. Healthcare systems are incorporating innovative strategies that strive to improve the health of their patients by addressing social needs, such as food insecurity, and to reduce the burden of disease, health disparities, and the cost of healthcare. 

Adapted from: Seligman, H., & Schilinger, D. (2010). Hunger and Socioeconomic Disparities in Chronic Disease. The New England Journal of Medicine, 363(1), 6-9.

Breaking the food insecurity cycle in King County

An important approach to break this cycle is to identify who is experiencing food insecurity and connecting them to food resources. One intervention that has proven to be effective is integration of food insecurity screenings directly into the healthcare systems. By identifying patients who may be food insecure during a doctor’s visit – the same way patients are screened for other ailments – healthcare staff can work with patients to identify food resources that may be available to them. 

However, implementing this intervention throughout an entire healthcare system does not happen overnight. That is where the Food Insecurity Screening Community of Practice and its members step in.

The Community of Practice members are working together to increase patients’ access to healthy foods by improving the screening tools, processes, resources and programs used by their respective healthcare settings. For example, several members’ clinics have already started screening patients using a short questionnaire that helps to identify those at risk for or who are currently experiencing food insecurity. Patients that screen positive are connected to food assistance programs, such as SNAP, WIC or their neighborhood food bank. In addition, many clinics offer their patients food from an onsite food pantry or vouchers for fruits and vegetables that can be used at local farmers markets and grocery stores.  

Interested in learning more? Visit the Food Insecurity Network’s website.