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Food Insecurity—A Threat to Public Health


Have you ever wondered when your next meal is going to come? Well, 10% of the US population does as they suffer from food insecurity. Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of safe and nutritionally adequate foods or the limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. Food insecurity in the US is linked to a variety of health issues, such as greater risks of birth defects, obesity, anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive issues, asthma, poor oral health, and a heightened risk of mental and behavioral health issues in children. 

Food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome of food insecurity. 

More needs to be done to address the source of the problem and strengthen public health infrastructure. Food insecurity may be influenced by income, employment, disability, race, and ethnicity. 

Food Insecurity—Grim Statistics 

General: 

In 2016, 31.6% of low-income households were food insecure, compared to the national average of 12.3%. High unemployment rates among low-income populations make it more difficult to meet basic household food needs. 

 

In 2016, black non-Hispanic households were nearly two times more likely to be food insecure than the national average (22.5% versus 12.3%, respectively). Among Hispanic households, the prevalence of food insecurity was 18.5% compared to the national average (12.3%). 

 

Disabled adults may be at a higher risk for food insecurity due to limited employment opportunities and healthcare-related expenses that reduce the income available to buy food. 

Children: 

According to National Center for Health Statistics: 

  • In 2019–2020, 10.8% of children aged 0–17 lived in households that experienced food insecurity during the past 30 days. 

 

  • The percentage of children who lived in food-insecure households was higher for non-Hispanic Black (18.8%) than Hispanic (15.7%) children and higher for both non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic children than for non-Hispanic White children (6.5%). 

 

  • A greater percentage of children with disabilities (19.3%) lived in food-insecure households compared with children without disabilities (9.8%). 

 

  • Children in large central metropolitan areas (13.2%) were more likely than those in large fringe metropolitan (7.4%) and medium and small metropolitan (10.5%) areas to live in food-insecure households. 

Food Insecurity and Social Determinants of Public Health 

Neighborhood conditions may affect physical access to food. Predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer full-service supermarkets than predominantly white and non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Communities that lack affordable and nutritious food are commonly known as “food deserts.” 

Convenience stores and small independent stores are more common in food deserts than full-service supermarkets or grocery stores. These stores may have higher food prices, lower quality foods, and less variety of foods. Lack of transportation and long distances between residences and supermarkets or grocery stores also affect access to healthy foods. 

Health Effects from Food Insecurity 

Adults with food insecurity may be at an increased risk for various negative health outcomes and health disparities. For example, a study found that food-insecure adults may be at an increased risk for obesity. Another study found higher rates of chronic disease in low-income, food-insecure adults between 18 and 65. 

Food-insecure children may also be at an increased risk for various negative health outcomes, including obesity. They also face a higher risk of developmental problems compared with food-secure children. In addition, reduced frequency, quality, variety, and quantity of consumed foods may harm children’s mental health. 

Interventions to Address Food Insecurity 

Interventions that address barriers to accessing healthy food include food assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, the Women, Infants, and the Children program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Studies show these programs may reduce food insecurity. 

The American College of Physicians (ACP) therefore suggests that physicians and health care professionals incorporate screening tools for nutrition and other social drivers of health as an integral part of medical practice. They also recommend food insecurity be added to medical education curricula. 

The ACP urged lawmakers to improve SNAP to better serve the needs and health of food-insecure individuals. Meanwhile, they suggested that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services develop, test, and support innovative models that incorporate benefits related to food-insecurity issues. 

What Comes Next? 

More research is needed to understand food insecurity and its influence on health outcomes and disparities. Future studies should consider the characteristics of communities and households that influence food insecurity. This additional evidence will facilitate public health efforts to address food insecurity as a social determinant of health. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members. 

References: 

American College of Physicians calls US food insecurity a threat to public health | The Hill Products - Data Briefs - Number 432 - February 2022 (cdc.gov) 

Products - Data Briefs - Number 432 - February 2022 (cdc.gov) 

https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-health/interventions-resources/food-insecurity 

The National Public Health Information Coalition

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