Opinion: Reducing the impact of food insecurity across our communities

By Morgan Buchko, VP of Market Partnership Strategy and Performance, CCA Health Michigan

Food insecurity is a significant and persistent problem in Michigan.

At CCA Health Michigan, our clinical care team sees firsthand how a lack of food can play a direct role in a person’s overall health and well-being. Not long ago, one of our Care Partners and registered nurses followed up with a member and noticed that he frequently visited the emergency department. On paper, this member’s case was straightforward: He was in poor health, with several unmanaged chronic health conditions. As our Care Partner worked with him over time and earned his trust, she learned that the member went to the emergency department often because he knew he would get a full meal.

He needed to eat, and he believed that the hospital was the only reliable place where he could get food if he couldn’t make ends meet.

Unfortunately, he’s far from alone.

More than one in 10 Michigan households can’t adequately feed someone in their home. That’s according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In southeast Michigan, food insecurity affects 43% of seniors, and high food insecurity rates are linked to racial disparities, particularly in metro Detroit. At the same time, food costs are going up and food bank supplies are stretched thin, which will likely make the crisis worse.

Solving this issue will require that we approach this issue in a number of ways. We need community nonprofits, government entities and healthcare organizations to work together to make sure that all Michiganders have the food they need to live meaningful and healthy lives.

Healthcare organizations are uniquely positioned to help reduce food insecurity, particularly for people with significant physical and mental health needs because they can use their expertise to identify people’s health needs and then connect them with resources in their communities. Healthcare organizations play an important role in reducing barriers to long-term health and well-being, especially for older and more vulnerable people.

We know there is a link between food insecurity and a person’s health. A lack of food can lead to poor health. Food deserts, like those in under-resourced areas of Detroit, often force low-income families to eat cheap and nutrition-poor food. Many neighborhoods do not have access to grocery stores; instead, residents rely on party stores, dollar stores, fast-food restaurants and gas stations. Most of these stores have a limited number of fresh vegetables and fruits and instead stock canned, boxed, frozen and/or highly processed foods that are laden with excessive salt, sugar and harmful fats. For people with chronic conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes — which affect black adults at higher rates than white adults — healthy alternatives are hard to find.

Older adults are the fastest growing group of hungry people in the United States. When an older adult doesn’t have access to enough nutritious food, they can be at even higher risk of developing obesity, diabetes and heart and lung diseases.

For our member who got several of his meals at the emergency department, the first thing our Care Partner did was to set him up with regular meal deliveries. He had an intellectual disability and very limited social and family support, so she signed him up for Meals on Wheels to make sure he would get the food he needed delivered to his home. As a result, he went to the emergency department less, which also reduced his risk of exposure to infections.

This is just one example of how healthcare organizations can make a difference, one person at a time, through meaningful connections. At CCA Health Michigan, our nurses and community health workers connect with our members on a personal level to identify those at risk for food insecurity and other social factors that impact health. By developing trusting relationships with each person, health professionals can help find the right solution for each individual’s unique needs.

Healthcare organizations can play a strong leadership role through partnerships with community groups working on the ground, too. We believe working with local nonprofits is essential. This year, we partnered with Gleaners Community Food Bank of Detroit and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to support their efforts and ensure our members are aware of these great services. We are actively engaging other organizations with expertise addressing other social factors affecting health, including housing and social isolation.

By helping individuals access food and reinvesting in our communities, healthcare organizations can step up in new ways to proactively improve Michiganders’ overall health and well-being.

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