Benefits of Screening for Food Insecurity

By: Catherine Wiley, MD

Hunger is a problem that affects far more children than most people realize.

Across the country, an estimated 16 million kids live in households that lack consistent access to food, according to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

To help curb hunger, the AAP is now recommending pediatricians screen all children for food insecurity.

It’s the first time the organization has taken such a stance.

Under the new guidelines, the AAP is urging pediatricians to use two screening questions:

  1. Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more. Yes or no?
  2. Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more. Yes or no?

The goal of the new guidelines is to help reduce health problems linked to hunger.

The AAP’s policy statement outlines the problems children and families face due to their trouble accessing food. Those include:

  • Increased stress in families that contributes to depression, anxiety and toxic stress
  • Adverse health outcomes including poorer overall health and more hospitalizations
  • Higher risk for developmental and behavior problems
  • Reduced academic achievement

These new guidelines are strongly supported by the Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

Food and nutrition is a key component of the Office’s flower diagram which shows the various sectors affecting children’s lives and how they bloom together to promote children’s optimal healthy development.

The Office believes it’s crucial to provide support to families in times of need, including food and nutrition, as without that support the optimal healthy development of children is adversely impacted.

In addition, the Connecticut Children’s Primary Care Center (the Center) has used universal screening for food insecurity for many years.

That’s because we care for many high risk families and are very aware of the high prevalence of food insecurity in the community we serve.

We include questions about food insecurity on the questionnaires parents fill out before all new patient visits and annual physicals, and have specifically used the same questions now recommended by the AAP for about three years.

At the Center, once families are identified with food insecurity, steps are taken to make sure those who qualify for federal nutrition programs, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), are enrolled in them.

While most food-insecure families are eligible for federal programs, as many as 30 percent do not meet federal income thresholds for assistance, according to the AAP.

To provide additional help, the Center provides families with a list of food pantries in the area and refers them to social workers for additional assistance and resources.

Also, a mobile farmer’s market visits the Center once a month to provide families with access to fruits and vegetables at reduced prices.

Sometimes parents don’t want to acknowledge the problem or feel embarrassed that they are struggling to provide enough food for their children.

We believe that conducting routine screenings and providing assistance to families makes parents more willing to open up about their struggles.

We’re excited and encouraged to know that more practices, because of the new AAP guidelines, will be screening for food insecurity as a much-needed way to help strengthen families.

Catherine Wiley, MD is the medical director of Connecticut Children’s Primary Care Center. Learn more »

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