Hunger. It’s probably a word you utter on a regular basis. You know what it means to be hungry. Your stomach may start rumbling. You may even get cranky and irritable. For most of us, it’s a simple enough problem to solve — by eating something. But in America, over 34 million Americans face hunger each and every day, including 1 in 8 children who go hungry. That’s why September is Hunger Action Month, a time to recognize food insecurity — a growing problem in our region, and one that your hospitals see firsthand every day.
From May to July 2023, the Community Resource Center in North San Diego County saw a 46% increase in the average monthly number of participants coming to its Food & Nutrition Center for food assistance, compared to the same time period last year. This overall increase is mainly due to the rising need for emergency food — 1 in 4 people in San Diego County is nutrition insecure. The San Diego Hunger Coalition estimates that, as of March 2023, nearly (23%) of San Diegans experience nutrition insecurity, or are unable to provide three, nutritious meals per day for themselves and/or their families. Out of the nearly three-quarters of a million people who are estimated to be nutrition insecure in San Diego County, many are among our most vulnerable populations: 194,000 are children, 147,000 are older adults (age 60+), and 113,000 are living with disabilities.
The issues are similar in Imperial County, which faces its own set of challenges. According to this year’s Map the Meal Gap report, Feeding America notes that 9 out of 10 high food insecurity counties are rural. Imperial County is no exception: 1 in 5 residents live below the poverty level, with vulnerable populations such as children and seniors particularly at risk — about 75% of students enrolled in Imperial County public schools during the 2022-23 school year were eligible for free or reduced-cost meals.
Just like many other issues, your hospitals are on the front lines of this problem, and an ideal place to connect food-insecure patients, especially as you are now screening more patients for the social determinants of health, including food insecurity. While your hospitals can be a valuable resource for this, a new survey shows there’s still work to be done. A survey from the Food Research and Action Center points to the need for much greater communication between health care centers and hunger relief organizations when it comes to food insecurity screening and intervening. Nearly all the survey respondents (99%) agreed or strongly agreed that screening for food insecurity in a clinical setting is important. But often, there are not always interventions in place to address food insecurity once it’s discovered.
Despite the challenges, every day, your hospitals are doing their part to connect food-insecure patients to resources and services such as CalFresh. Integrating screening and food assistance into health care settings can help ensure every eligible resident in San Diego and Imperial counties has enough to eat — patients are more likely to sign up for food assistance when it is seen as part of their patient care plan. Your hospitals have been providing this assistance for several years, helping thousands of patients apply for CalFresh. While conducting the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, one of the top responses during our access to health care interviews and online community survey was to connect patients to services that will improve their health and well-being. By helping them navigate related resources, your hospitals are doing just that. By screening for food insecurity, building community partnerships, and providing resources to those who need help, your hospitals are helping to create a healthier environment — one that encompasses and addresses the community’s physical health, behavioral health, and socio-economic needs.