Food security for all requires year-round commitment

When the pandemic began in 2020, the US Department of Agriculture extended free lunches to school-aged children throughout the year, including the summer months. The program will no longer be available at the end of this school year and many food insecure families now face a summer without a school food assistance program.

The situation is even more serious as inflation and the cost of living soar, leaving millions of individuals and families in critical need of year-round nutritional assistance.

Food insecurity is not only detrimental to the health, development and well-being of individuals, but also cripples the progress of communities in our state and society. More than 3.1 million Floridians struggle to get nutritious food, and about one in five children or more than 900,000 in the state lack adequate nutrition, according to a study by the Feeding America network.

Vast racial and ethnic disparities are also endemic. The prevalence of food insecurity among black and Hispanic households is more than twice that of non-Hispanic white households.

Before the pandemic, two out of three people served by the Feeding America network had to choose between food and utilities; more than half had the choice of food or lodging. Today, due to inflation, SNAP earnings and payments don’t go that far. Supply chain issues and rising energy costs have compounded the problem and it has also become more difficult even for food banks to purchase and distribute food at the rate and cost that they once had.

Tackling the problem of food insecurity in our communities is not just the moral and ethical thing to do. It also addresses the economic and social impact it has on our communities and our state today and for the future.

Hungry adults are less productive and suffer more from chronic diseases such as diabetes, depression and high blood pressure. Research has also found that food insecurity is associated with certain birth defects as well as cognitive problems in childhood, asthma, aggression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.

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Here in Florida, more than $4.2 billion in health care costs are associated with food insecurity each year, according to a CDC study.

What are we doing to help combat this growing problem?

Some of the solutions include investing in innovative programs that, when put together, can make a huge difference for those who need help. This includes de-stigmatizing food programs and initiatives such as free food pantries in schools and hospitals; the expansion of Fresh Access Bucks, which allows SNAP users to get double dollars for product purchases; and providing medically appropriate meals to help patients prevent, delay and manage diet-related illnesses and conditions.

Innovative programs, like Feeding Florida’s Mobile Markets program, are making a difference in patient care as well as preventative health.

We need to broaden our approach and recognize that food security is a concern for all of us. This must be a priority for our government, businesses and individuals. Above all, we must fight against hunger 12 months a year.

This month, the Florida Blue Foundation announced $3.8 million in grants to 12 nonprofits focused on promoting food security statewide in innovative ways. Florida Blue has long prioritized food security – or access to nutritious foods that support optimal health and well-being – as the driver of health at all stages of life.

Investments in food security can prevent a wide range of serious and chronic diet-related diseases and conditions, reduce health care costs and improve mental well-being.

Recognizing this as a public health priority, public and private sector organizations must work together to identify sustainable solutions and elevate existing programs that promote inclusivity, reduce stigma, and make food affordable and nutrients in the hands of Floridians.

Robin Safely is the executive director of Feeding Florida, the state network of food banks working to solve hunger. Susan Towler is executive director of the Florida Blue Foundation, the philanthropic foundation for the state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield plan.

This guest column is the opinion of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of The Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.


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