As inflation threatens our nation's health, food is medicine

As inflation surges to a new four-decade high, rising 9.1 percent in June due to soaring prices for gas, food and rent, food insecurity is a growing threat to our nation's health.

The inability to put enough healthy food on the table is often hidden in the United States. But more than 38 million people, including 12 million children, across our nation are food insecure, according to the USDA.

Health care workers see firsthand the devastating effects of food insecurity on individuals and the health care system. Food is medicine. Consistently eating calorically dense, nutritionally depleted food accelerates disease. Adults in households with food insecurity are 40 percent likelier to be diagnosed with a chronic condition. Persistent food insecurity is associated with a higher probability of diabetes, stroke, hypertension, obesity, hepatitis, cancer, asthma, arthritis, COPD and kidney disease. On average, food insecurity adds 11 percent to the health care costs of older adults.

Catholic Health is working to identify people who are having food insecurity issues and addressing them at the point of crisis, whether it's in the hospital or not. We screen people in our emergency departments and physician practices, asking how many times in the last week or month they felt they did not have enough food to eat. But identifying food insecurity is only the first step.

We've partnered with Island Harvest Food Bank and Adelphi University nutrition graduate students to provide access to healthy food and increase adherence to healthy food choices. And we're seeing positive results, such as reduced hospital readmissions and patients reporting a better understanding of the connection between what they eat and their health.

By focusing on food insecurity, we can improve both quality of life and overall health outside of hospitals and physician offices. We can help bend the disease curve to prevent many instances of diseases like diabetes or heart disease. And that's powerful. That's focusing on health care versus disease care. Not only does it improve quality of life for individuals, but it also lowers the cost of treating chronic disease for individuals and the health care system.

Community partnerships are vital to addressing food insecurity and for identifying the root causes driving this issue. We can't solve the problem alone, but together as a nation, we have the resources to end food insecurity. It will require an active partnership between a vast network of charities, food banks, governments and the private sector. Let's make it happen.

Dr. O'Shaughnessy is president & CEO of Catholic Health, the second-largest health system on Long Island, N.Y. He began his career as an emergency department physician.

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