Food is essential to fulfilling biological and psychological needs and providing the energy and nutrients people need to live and thrive. Yet, unfortunately, more than 34 million Americas are food insecure. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
There are two critical factors in food insecurity: quantity and quality. Many food-insecure individuals have access to food, but the food is low-quality and has poor nutritional value. Other individuals do not have reliable access to food and may skip meals or eat less at different points in the month or year.
Although food insecurity can affect anyone near or below the poverty line, regardless of race, gender, age or education, some key populations struggle with food insecurity. These populations include college students, pregnant and breastfeeding individuals, and elderly community members. Fortunately, community health workers (CHWs) have the training, knowledge, and resources to address food security needs in these populations.
Food Security and At-Risk Populations: A CHW Intervention
CHWs can address food insecurity in several ways. First, CHWs can assess food security levels among their populations. Understanding who is food insecure is the first step to addressing their needs. Next, CHWs can refer their clients to many resources, including food pantries and food banks. Third, because CHWs understand their populations’ needs best, they can and should be involved in community-level strategies to address them. Below, we explore each priority population’s unique food insecurity challenges and how CHWs can address these needs.
More than one-third of college students, ages 18 to 24, experience food insecurity. There are many reasons for this. Many college students work entry-level jobs with low hourly wages and often pay for expensive classes, fees, and campus housing. Additionally, many students don’t know about the available resources or might be embarrassed to access them.
Fortunately, CHWs can address these barriers. For example, CHWs can help college students find and apply for jobs. CHWs can also help students apply for government aid programs and food vouchers. Additionally, if campuses employ CHWs in their health and wellness centers, CHWs can work with campus food pantries to develop discreet delivery systems.
Pregnant people and nursing individuals
Food is perhaps the most important among pregnant and nursing people. Pregnant and nursing people have much higher nutritional needs to maintain a pregnancy, deliver an infant, and feed the infant. However, many pregnant and breastfeeding people cannot work or access healthy, nutritionally valuable foods. Food insecurity during pregnancy and breastfeeding can lead to early birth, small birth weight, and slow physical development after the infant is born.
CHWs play a crucial role in addressing these needs. CHWs should be a part of the pregnancy journey, whether employed in OB/GYN offices or community maternal health centers. Regardless of their employment location, CHWs can help pregnant and breastfeeding people apply for WIC, access food services, get vouchers for formula, and more.
Our nutritional needs change as we age, and many people need less food. However, people continue to need high-quality, healthy foods. Unfortunately, food insecurity is higher among older individuals. The National Council on Aging reports that food insecurity disproportionately affects older adults who experience chronic health conditions and institutional racism, have high healthcare costs and lack affordable housing.
CHWs can address elderly populations’ nutritional needs in many ways. First, they can help older adults enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicare, which can reduce their healthcare costs. Next, they can help elderly residents find and apply for affordable housing. When people address housing needs, more money is available for food. Finally, CHWs often participate in delivery programs to bring food and toiletries to homebound residents.
The Essential Services CHWs Provide with Food Security
There are countless skills and resources CHWs provide in the fight against hunger and food insecurity. If your organization, health system, doctor’s office, or other institutions would like to develop a CHW program to address food security, please contact the expert team at Everyday Life Consulting. Our Master CHWs and CHW Trainers have the skills, expertise, and experience to train your CHW workforce, and our team expertly advises program development.