Hunger, food insecurity continue to vex Indiana residents

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The issues of hunger and food insecurity continue to challenge Indiana caregivers and policymakers even after the Great Recession, despite the impression of plenty that Indiana’s low unemployment rate—3.5 percent in August—might  give.

And the effects of hunger and food insecurity are having wider and more expensive repercusions on Hoosiers' health than may be immediately obvious to the untrained eye, according to panelists Wednesday morning at the Hunger and Health event presented by IBJ and Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

In Indiana, one million people face food insecurity, and in Indianapolis the number is approaching nearly 175,000—or more than 18 percent of the population. The federal definition of food insecurity is having limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Morgan Smith, manager of health interventions for Feeding America, a national organization that serves as a network of more than 200 food banks. Smith estimated that the state of Indiana is facing $1.5 billion in annual excess health care costs as a result of food insecurity.

According to the Brookings Institution, the percentage of households experiencing food insecurity nationwide is still higher than it was before the recession. 

And Smith said increasingly vulnerable populations include children and seniors. A 2018 Feeding America report shows that 4.9 million people aged 60 or older, or 7.7 percent of that group, were food insecure—above the 2007 rate of 6.3 percent.

But there’s no easy way to pinpoint who might be hungry. It cuts across all demographics, and it includes people who might seem to have adequate access to food.

Deanna Reinoso, chief executive physician at Eskanazi Pecar Health Center, said she had a 12-year-old patient who was referred to her by a school nurse who thought the child had an eating disorder because she wasn’t eating her lunch and had lost weight. But Reinoso said it turned out that she was taking her food home each day to make sure a younger sibling could eat.

“That was the tipping point for me” to want to do more, Reinoso said. Eskanazi opened its food pantry shortly after.

Jennifer Walthall, secretary of Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration, said that in many cases people are working multiple jobs and balancing their expenses month to month to try to afford basic needs like healthy food. 

In fact, Walthall said that in order to quality for federal nutrition assistance, which more than 600,000 people in Indiana receive, an Indiana resident must be working or seeking employment.

Ivy Tech Community College is working with students to help eliminate the barriers they face between enrolling and receiving a degree, said Katie Mote, vice president of operations for southern Indiana. For example, Ivy Tech partnered with Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana and Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana to open a food pantry at Ivy Tech’s Noblesville campus.

Walthall said that it’s important for social services groups, government agencies and health providers to work collaboratively to be able to address interconnected problems that affect health. 

“Despite health care innovation, health has not improved,” Walthall said. She said it’s important for service providers to think about the whole person when they’re providing services and what other needs a patient might face—and then try to connect them with ways to meet those needs. 

“If you need this, what else do you need?” Walthall. “Food is medicine. Transportation is medicine.”

Scott Teffeteller, president of the east region for Indianapolis-based hospital system Community Health Network, said it’s important to realize that addressing hunger will require a long-term approach.

He said employers have a role in ensuring employees have what they need to lead healthy lives. For example, Teffeteller said, Community Health Network recently increased its minimum wage to $11 per hour. He challenged attendees to see if they could live on the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

“We didn’t get here overnight,” he said. 

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