Food insecurity is a solvable problem, but no one-size-fits-all solution exists

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, America has a stubborn problem that hits closer to home than one might think: food insecurity.

Food insecurity means a lack of consistent access to nutritious, affordable food. Last year, 1 in 10 households were food insecure, according to the Department of Agriculture. This has implications for our health, economy and society as a whole.

A child facing hunger is more likely to have challenges in school, affecting them into adulthood. Young adults who lack access to nutritious food are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and sleep problems. And people who are food insecure suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases like diabetes and HIV/AIDS.

Raise awareness of hunger in the United States

Reducing food insecurity means improving local economies, lowering health care costs and improving quality of life in communities across the country.

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As the senior medical adviser for the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and as a leader at a health company serving more than 118 million people, we have witnessed the devastating consequences of food insecurity. We also recognize the magnitude and complexity of the problem. While every single county in the United States has individuals and families who are food insecure, food insecurity still looks different from community to community. Although this is a solvable problem, no one-size-fits-all solution exists.

That’s why we believe that localized action is key to tackling hunger and food insecurity. And this Hunger Action Month, the Feeding America network’s annual nationwide campaign designed to inspire people to take action and raise awareness of hunger in the United States, we’re calling on community leaders across this country to join us in answering this call.

Here’s how:

Dr. Hilary Seligman, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine, is a senior medical adviser at Feeding America.
Dr. Hilary Seligman, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine, is a senior medical adviser at Feeding America.
Dr. Shantanu Agrawal is chief health officer for Elevance Health.
Dr. Shantanu Agrawal is chief health officer for Elevance Health.

Trust community members to know what they need

The underlying causes of food insecurity – poverty, under- or unemployment, and geography – are deeply intertwined. The complex interplay between these social drivers means that food insecurity and hunger vary greatly from one community to another, both in its root causes and the ways community members experience it.

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Therefore, we must remember that the best people to ask for ideas to address hunger and food insecurity in a community are individuals embedded within it. People who may have lived in an area for generations have a deep understanding and appreciation of the individuals, history, challenges and infrastructure of their neighborhoods. That makes them uniquely qualified to identify both the challenges and opportunities that might not be immediately apparent to those outside of the community.

For example, a community advocate with firsthand knowledge of safety issues with a neighborhood’s available housing might easily be able to identify thirdhand smoke as a contributor to rising rates of childhood asthma. In an under-resourced community, a teacher could attribute changes in students’ academic performance to their need to work an afterschool job to help with family bills.

This complex web of circumstances is made up of what we call the social drivers of health – the contextual factors in a person’s life that contribute to their health and well-being. And tapping into the invaluable perspectives of residents about how the social drivers impact health in their communities can help us uncover the root causes of food insecurity.

Receiving food bank produce, dry goods and meat on July 29, 2020, in New York City.
Receiving food bank produce, dry goods and meat on July 29, 2020, in New York City.

Support local food banks

Supporting local food banks is one of the best ways to make an impact on food insecurity. The Feeding America network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations and over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs plays a key role in working alongside families by providing food and services nationwide. With so many people in need of assistance, food banks are community partners and in need of your support. Use Feeding America’s locator tool to find your nearest food bank.

Look to other communities for inspiration

Although community members themselves are best equipped to know what their community needs to address food insecurity, they don’t always have the financial resources to do so. That's why the Elevance Health Foundation has committed more than $22 million in grants to critical organizations, including Feeding America, that help communities achieve good health through nutrition.

Our organizations have collaborated since 2004 to address hunger and food insecurity in our communities, and we’ve learned much over the years about what communities need and how we can creatively support residents to solve tough challenges.

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Through our “Food as Medicine” initiative, Elevance Health is helping to provide nutritious food to communities in need as part of their commitment to building healthier lives and communities. Through this partnership, we’ve screened more than 700,000 people to assess whether they are food insecure and help serve their needs.

We are proud of the progress we’ve made together. We’re seeing that collaborations and interventions truly work. This is the moment to push forward and change the trajectory of what food insecurity looks like in this country and within our communities. With local action, the health and well-being of our communities can improve.

This Hunger Action Month, and every month, we urge leaders, community organizations and residents to renew their commitment to solving these challenges, starting by taking actions close to home.

Dr. Hilary Seligman, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine, is a senior medical adviser at Feeding America. Dr. Shantanu Agrawal is chief health officer for Elevance Health. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hunger Action Month: Tackle food insecurity by taking local actions