The Ethics of Nourishing Our Communities

  • Article
  • September 13, 2019

Most people who attend my keynote on food insecurity are often shocked within the first 10 minutes. Once people learn the full meaning of food insecurity, they realize hunger is more than starvation or welfare. They learn everyone independent of industry or scope of practice likely works with a population struggling to afford healthy food.

Did you know that every county in the U.S. has members living within it who face hunger and many of those people don’t qualify for food assistance programs because their income is too high? Let’s look at how that can even happen in a country like the U.S.—known as the “land of the plenty”—and talk about ways we can be part of the solution.

Food insecurity is a non-consistent access to food for an active and healthy life for everyone in the household. It is a major social and economic condition associated with the most serious and costly health problems in the United States. Food insecurity is associated with a number of health-related issues such as  type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and depression, costing the United States $160 billion in direct and indirect healthcare cost in 2014, according to Bread for the World Institute. Unfortunately, over 40 million people in the United States struggle to eat nourishing foods and about 29 percent of them don't qualify for food assistance programs because their incomes are too high according to data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap report.

Whether you work in corporate wellness, preventative care or disease management, access to healthy food should be a top priority. Shockingly, 1 in 3 critically ill adults do not have enough money for food, medicine, or both in the United States. Understanding a person’s ability to buy food radically impacts the direction of client education. A person cannot eat broccoli or drink wholesome milk, if they do not have access it. Yet, we often don’t talk about or ask how a person acquires their food such as broccoli or milk. This means, we are skipping the most important step in nutrition outreach and instead, we often dive directly into diet prescription and healthy eating tips without understanding the full picture that is necessary to help our patients and clients.

Hunger is not just a moral or charity matter, it is an ethical issue. The ethics of food insecurity is predominately debated as a global human right to food. However, the ethics of hunger must be addressed and identified in the United States with tangible solutions, if we are going to improve the health of our nation. Most health care professionals follow a code of ethics, which include indicators focusing on a person’s dignity along with patient care decisions based on the economic situation and limitations of a person.

Food is at the core of patient care. It is time to address the limitations of food access and provide solutions for patients prior to nutrition education. We can start by implementing three simple solutions into the everyday practice of health care.

  1. Screen everyone at every health and wellness visit using the Hunger Vital Sign, a validated two-question screening tool. Screening everyone at every visit normalizes the processes and eliminates assumptions.
  2. Recommend food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help improve access to healthy foods. The average person receives $126 a month in SNAP benefits.
  3. Keep the local school meal program application at your office. If a person who screens positive for food insecurity, help them complete the application onsite. A free breakfast and a free lunch for one child can save a family approximately $120 a month!

People who participate in food assistance programs such as Child Meal Programs, Afterschool Snack and Meals, Summer Food Service Program, and Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) often have access to more milk, vegetables, and whole grains. Three daily servings of dairy foods, like milk, contribute to healthy eating styles and well-being. Milk has a unique nutrient package complete with nine essential nutrients important for growth and development. Milk and dairy foods like yogurt and cheese are also linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure among adults and is associated with better bone health, especially in children and adolescents. 

The change starts with you, your voice, your network/reach, and your compassion. Together, let’s make access to healthy food the starting point for nutrition education, disease prevention and disease management. 

Clancy Harrison is president of the West Side Food Pantry and the founder of two grass-root anti-hunger programs, Children Feeding Children and FARMU. She teaches at Pennsylvania State University and is the chair for the Political Action Committee of the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Harrison is also an ambassador for National Dairy Council.

For more from Clancy Harrison, check out “How This Former ‘Food Elitist’ Is Helping to Fight Hunger.”