Adequate access to nutritious food is associated with better health for people of all ages

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, many of us will gather to share a meal with family and friends and reflect on our many blessings. While we enjoy our elaborate meal of turkey with all the trimmings, let us also consider the many vulnerable Alabamians who do not have access to enough nutritious food to feed their families throughout the year. For many people, fixed expenses such as housing and medication are covered first, leaving little for more flexible expenses, including the food budget. Sometimes, this leads to purchasing lower quality food to ensure there is enough to go around.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service defines food insecurity as when a person is without reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious, and healthy food. Food insecurity affects the physical and mental well-being of people of all ages. Many households which struggle with food insecurity include one or more family members living with a chronic disease such as high blood pressure or diabetes. The combination of stress and poor nutrition can make managing a chronic disease even more challenging. Frequently, the time and money spent caring for a chronic disease strains the food budget even more, creating a cycle that increases the risk that the person’s health will get worse, and the food budget will continue to shrink. Poor dietary intake during pregnancy and early childhood can increase the risk for birth defects, anemia, low birth weight, preterm birth, and other developmental risks.

Healthy bodies and minds of all ages require nutritious food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with healthy eating patterns live longer and are at lower risk for serious health problems. For people with chronic diseases, healthy eating can help manage these conditions and prevent complications.

While food insecurity affects all communities in every county, Feeding America reports that 26 percent of black individuals in Alabama are food insecure, which is higher than the national average of 19.7 percent (2021). Additionally, 12 percent of Latino individuals and 10 percent of white Alabamians are food insecure. According to Feeding America’s 2023 Map the Meal Gap Report, rates of food insecurity among children are extremely high, with Alabama’s Perry, Greene, and Wilcox counties among the 10 counties in the nation with the highest percentage of child food insecurity rates (39.8, 37.8, and 36.1 percent, respectively). Food insecurity rates are also high among older adults and those in rural areas.

According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), even marginal food insecurity is linked to some of the most common and costly health problems in the United States. Household food insecurity is a strong predictor of higher healthcare use and increased healthcare costs, with direct and indirect health-related costs of hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. estimated at $160 billion.

You and your family can give back and help reduce food insecurity by holding a food drive; donating food, supplies, and/or funds to a food bank; serving food to the homeless or others in need at a soup kitchen; and/or delivering meals to the elderly and people with transportation and mobility limitations.

If you struggle with having enough food for yourself and your family, or struggle to afford nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables, you are not alone. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in Alabama is a supplemental nutrition program that helps pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding moms and children birth through age 5 access nutritious foods for growing minds and bodies. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly benefits to help low-income households access foods needed for good health. To learn more about these and other food assistance programs in our state, visit Food Access Resources.

Scott Harris, M.D., M.P.H.
State Health Officer