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Revisiting Food and Medicine Together to Improve the Human Condition

December 13, 2021 | Letters

Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics

Recently we dove into Dr. Brenna Ellison’s research into food insecurity on college campuses and began to appreciate the complexities of language used to describe food aid. With all of the focus this fall on human behavior and how it does (or does not) contribute to human health and well-being, concerns about food insecurity right here in the U.S., — especially in children who have faced precarious situations with school closures and related physical and mental health concerns — are front of mind for many of us in agriculture who seek to provide ample nutrition/food.

Thinking back a bit, we collected data in February 2016 from Midwestern households on food security status and simultaneously inquired about chronic and acute health conditions, medical expenses and the tradeoffs being made surrounding these two aspects of human well-being. The resulting paper, The intersection of food insecure populations in the Midwest U.S. and rates of chronic health conditions is freely available with Open Access in the journal Agriculture and Food Security.

Our findings mirrored previous studies in terms of overall drivers of food security status; however, we studied households of all income levels rather than focusing on those below a given threshold. By doing so, we identified a segment of households in the Midwest with seemingly ample income, but with chronic medical conditions and related expenses sometimes pushing those households into food insecurity as decisions were made to skimp on medications to allocate funds for food, or vice versa.

Fig. 1. From The intersection of food insecure populations in the Midwest U.S. and rates of chronic health conditions

In total, being male, middle-aged, having children in the household, and/or having diabetes, an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety in the household were significant determinants of decreased food security in our study. The relationship between health and nutrition is known, but perhaps not always fully appreciated when discussing food security and nutrition alongside medical and health issues. “The researchers of this study acknowledge a number of health issues can be alleviated by improved food quality and access, so addressing chronic illness as a contributor of food security can improve the metrics of food security measurement and can improve policy designed to ease food access constraints on households.”

We concluded our article, which was published in 2018, by saying, “Policy makers should consider how food and health overlap when measuring food security and when generating programs to alleviate it.”

Upon reflection and considering the situation which many U.S. households have faced and/or continue to face during this COVID-19 era, this may be truer today than when it was originally written. With unemployment, cutting back hours, limited opportunity due to health considerations and/or chronic conditions, illnesses and caretaking responsibilities, we need to consider the overlap between food and health policies. And given what we know about food security and children, we may wish to devote special attention to the food security and health status of children and the related situations of caretakers and household members surrounding them.