The announcement of the Biden-Harris Administration’s national strategy on hunger, nutrition, and health is a critical step toward building a healthier nation. For the first time in half a century, the administration announced more than $8 million in private and public sector commitments to help end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases by 2030. The focus on food security, nutrition, and health is encouraging, as public health champions have long advocated for more funding to support prevention, health promotion, and a greater emphasis on the social determinants of health. This is good news for the nation in that the social determinants of health, including access to affordable and nutritious foods and physical activity as outlined in the strategy, account for approximately 80 percent of health outcomes. Traditional clinical care accounts for 20 percent of health outcomes.
Consider food security. The lack of access to affordable and nutritious foods on a consistent basis has been problematic in the United States for some time now. For example, in 2021, 53 million people depended on food banks and community programs to help put food on their tables. Since then, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in food costs have helped fuel this dependence. The issue of food security is not limited to those living below the poverty line but can affect those with insufficient wages and competing household demands. Far too many individuals and families continue to rely on fast foods with limited nutritional value and foods from convenience stores, which offer little to no healthy food options.
The lack of access to affordable healthy food options results in higher rates of food insecurity and a host of chronic conditions. Each year millions of Americans die from diet-related chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancer, many of which are preventable. Six in ten adults in the U.S have a chronic condition, and four in ten have two or more of the leading causes of death and disability. Minority communities (e.g., Black, Hispanic, and Native American) tend to be hardest hit and are up to two times more likely than Whites to experience a chronic condition. Chronic conditions are the main contributors to the nation’s $4.1 trillion in annual health care costs. Perhaps less quantifiable are the losses associated with poor quality of life among those with chronic conditions.
As a nurse with decades of experience working to eliminate health disparities, I have worked with patients and families to secure resources to meet their basic needs, including food. I have witnessed firsthand individuals residing in low-income and under-resourced communities shopping at dollar stores to purchase large quantities of food items that lack the recommended nutritional value to support optimal health.
Thankfully, health care institutions, policymakers, insurance payers, public health leaders, and others have turned their attention to the social determinants of health in an effort to reduce health care costs and improve health outcomes for those residing in the United States. Despite the evidence that the social determinants of health are responsible for approximately 80 percent of health outcomes, funding to support these predictors of health has been inadequate. If addressed properly, there is potential for improving the nation’s health and decreasing health care costs.
I am heartened that the administration has stepped forward to invest in policies and fund programs that will benefit populations in need across all age groups and demographic factors. The infusion of public health principles to facilitate consumer education, strengthen food security policy, and integrate nutrition and health in programs targeting children as well as Medicaid and Medicare recipients is sorely needed. This renewed focus complements the tenets outlined in Healthy People 2030, the national objectives to improve health and well-being over the next decade.
Moreover, I acknowledge that many problems currently plague our country. However, hunger, food insecurity, and poor health are national priorities that require an immediate and robust response. The Biden-Harris Administration’s hunger, nutrition, and health strategy answers the call for a multisector, concerted, and committed approach to improving the nation’s health. I look forward to the day when hunger and food insecurity will no longer be a policy imperative.
Janice Phillips is a nurse and public policy advocate.
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