Preventing Childhood Obesity

Food is Medicine: The Essential Connection Between Food Security and Health

By: Nancy Trout, MD, MPH

For more than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought devastating loss along with political, economic and social disruption to our nation. While we no longer see televised images of snaking lines of cars containing food insecure families lined up for assistance, food and nutrition insecurity rates remain high. As we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, we must look for opportunities to change structures and policies to promote food justice. Access to nutritious food must be viewed as a fundamental human right.

Food Is Medicine for Connecticut Children’s Patients

The Food Is Medicine movement, the assimilation of food and nutrition interventions into the infrastructure of healthcare, holds promise for meeting the immediate nutrition needs of patients and their families, while also preventing nutrition-related chronic diseases. The movement also advocates for broader, long-term health and food system reforms throughout Connecticut and across the country.

Connecticut Children’s is embracing the Food is Medicine concept through a new initiative to ensure our patients have access to nutritious food. The Start Childhood Off Right (SCOR) program, which is part of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, received a $100,000 Healthier Kids For Our Future grant from Cigna to launch a fruit and vegetable prescription program at Connecticut Children’s. The program is expected to launch in late April or early May. It will involve screening families in the Emergency Department for food insecurity and offering fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers to those with positive screens. Families will be able to redeem the vouchers at a Hartford Food System Mobile Market parked just outside the hospital. The aim is to address families’ acute food insecurity needs with the vouchers, connect them to other food resources, and provide nutrition education. The program will help tackle barriers to healthy eating by improving access to and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables for families in need.

Food Insecurity

The Food is Medicine movement aims to address growing prevalence of food insecurity, which occurs when households are not able to access enough healthy food for all family members due to limited financial resources. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 15% of households with children experienced food insecurity during 2020. Food and nutrition security form the foundation of both individual and public health, and good nutrition in infancy and early childhood can set the stage for healthy eating habits throughout life. Lack of access to healthy food and nutrition has created dire health consequences for families with lower socioeconomic positions and those who live in underserved communities, which often include families of color. We need to recognize the critical link between food insecurity and nutrition-related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease, which account for a sizeable share of healthcare usage and cost.

Food insecurity particularly affects children and interferes with their ability to learn and grow. Most children in low-income families do not meet the USDA dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption, and many such families do not have easy or dependable access to these foods, making food insecurity a major healthcare risk. The DataHaven Community Index for the North Hartford Promise Zone (NHPZ) showed that 45% of respondents reported food insecurity, and only 36% reported availability of affordable, high-quality fruits and vegetables. During the pandemic, calls to the 211 Infoline from NHPZ families for connection to food services doubled.

Food is Medicine: Going Even Further

Healthy nutrition is integral to good health and the prevention of disease, and we as a society are failing to meet this most basic of human needs in a significant portion of our population. We lack a just, fair and equitable food system.

As we look to tackle health disparities, addressing the challenge of food justice and universal access to healthy, nutritious food choices must be a priority. This effort will require addressing the deeply entrenched and interconnected underlying causes of food insecurity, such as poverty and unemployment, as well as inconsistent access to healthy foods coupled with aggressive marketing by the food industry of fast food or highly processed foods and sugar sweetened beverages.

While Food is Medicine initiatives such as the produce prescription program launched by SCOR in Connecticut Children’s Emergency Department help to address food insecurity, far more needs to be done. The SCOR program will promote nutrition education and access to fresh fruits and vegetables for families suffering from food insecurity, however access to nutritious food must become a fundamental right in our country. Food justice is essential to both health and health equity.

Nancy Trout, MD, MPH is a primary care pediatrician and co-director of Start Childhood Off Right, which is a childhood obesity prevention initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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