Addressing food insecurity starts with asking the right questions

FairFoodsWhile some American families are trying to figure out what to do with all the leftover turkey and stuffing, others are worrying about having enough food to make it through the week.

The problem is widespread and cuts across urban, suburban and rural communities. More than 15 million U.S. children live in households struggling with food insecurity, a term defined by the USDA as “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Although food insecurity is not a new issue in the U.S., the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) just issued a policy statement in October recommending for the first time that pediatricians screen for it.

Alexandra Epee-Bounya, MD
Alexandra Epee-Bounya, MD

Alexandra Epee-Bounya, MD, clinical director of Boston Children’s Primary Care at Martha Eliot, feels that near-historic levels of food insecurity may account for the AAP’s new directive. “The current economic recovery has not led to a significant decrease in food insecurity,” she says. “The AAP may have decided to publish this now to re-focus attention on this long-standing issue.”

For Epee-Bounya and her colleagues who work with low-income families, the AAP’s new policy won’t change their practice. “We have been screening for food insecurity at every one of our patients’ well child visits for as long as I can remember,” says Epee-Bounya. “We recognize that this is something many of our patients struggle with, and we want to know about it, and we want to help.”

But for pediatric providers who don’t work with traditionally under-served communities, the new policy helps to educate them on food insecurity and how it can lead to poor overall health and higher hospitalization rates and can also negatively impact learning and behavior. It also should affect a change in their daily practice. Epee-Bounya points out that food insecurity is “often not something the parents will bring up voluntarily, so asking a question such as ‘Do you have any concerns about being hungry or running out of food?’ can help uncover a serious problem — one that can be helped.”

Once Epee-Bounya has identified a need, she works with social workers and resource specialists to help the family access food and other services through organizations such as Project Bread, ABCD Food Pantry, Boston Rescue Mission and Rosie’s Place. Boston Children’s Primary Care at Martha Eliot also receives a bi-weekly delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables that are available to the public at $2 per bag.

Similar community organizations exist throughout the country, and connecting the right resources to the right families starts with asking the right questions.

Read the AAP’s policy statement on screening for food insecurity.