The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement urging pediatricians to screen for food insecurity and coordinate assistance for hungry and malnourished children.
Pediatricians could help identify hungry children using a screening method that involves asking parents if they were worried that they would run out of food at some point in the past year before they had enough money to purchase more, and whether their groceries lasted until they could afford to purchase more food.
The AAP found that the answers to these questions had a 97 percent success rate at identifying food-insecure families. Screening at the doctor’s office could help gather key data on who needs the most assistance and how to most effectively provide it to patients.
According to Maryah Fram, an associate social work professor at the University of South Carolina and food insecurity researcher, many families are often embarrassed to ask for help. By treating it as a medical issue, families might feel more comfortable seeking assistance in providing nutrition for their children. Hearing it from a doctor might make people less inclined to skip a meal until their next paycheck.
“People think you can recognize food insecurity when you see it, or that people with food insecurity look poor,” says Dr. Sarah J. Schwarzenberg, one of the authors of the AAP policy statement and the director of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital. “People who look just like you and me have food insecurity. Income is more unpredictable than it used to be.”
Underemployment, unemployment, and poverty are all problems associated with food insecurity, which has led to chronic hunger becoming a massive issue for families across the country.
For Asia Thompson, a mother of two and 22-year old student at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, looking for help with nutrition from the doctor was one of the last things she thought of doing. When you’re just as hungry as your children, making the best decisions may not always be the easiest thing. Instead of seeking help, Thompson would often split a meal for one between three people.
Thompson hopes that having doctors screen for hunger would take some of the embarrassment out of seeking help. She said that it takes an unspeakable amount of courage to talk to someone about not being able to feed your kids.
While programs like SNAP help struggling families afford groceries, they are often not enough. Physicians can create a network of patients in need and agencies and nonprofits that provide assistance, which would go a long way in reducing hunger in households across America.