Hunger in Houston: Why it’s a problem and what you can do to help fight it

For many children, summer brings a much-anticipated break from school and a chance to unwind for a few weeks before classes start up again in the fall. But for other families, the long, sweltering months are a worrisome time when healthy food can be hard to find.

Beyond the reading, writing and arithmetic lessons that nourish kids’ brains, schools also offer nutritious breakfasts and lunches for children who don’t have regular or consistent access to food in their own homes. During the summer months when schools are closed, hunger becomes an acute problem for families who sometimes are forced to choose between paying for food and other necessities.

Sadly, food insecurity remains a particularly stubborn problem in the region. More than one in four children in Southeast Texas faces the threat of hunger every day, according to the Houston Food Bank, which distributes food to families throughout the city. About one in five households in Southeast Texas reports having some type of food insecurity – either not enough food in their fridge and pantry, or inconsistent access to high-quality nutritious food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the food bank.

That’s problematic because hunger and food insecurity have been linked to detrimental consequences, from an increased risk for chronic disease to poor academic performance.

A study published earlier this year found that children who experience hunger in their first years of life tend to lag behind their peers by the time they reach kindergarten, including lower math and reading scores, poorer attention spans and higher rates of tantrums and hyperactivity. Compounding the problem, these negative effects extend even beyond their first year of school, as hungry children consistently struggled to catch up with their classmates, even years later.

For adults, a lack of access to nutritious food can cause them to choose cheaper and unhealthier alternatives, which in turn heightens their risk for obesity as well as other expensive and debilitating diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.

Recognizing a need to tackle the hunger problem within the Greater Houston area, Memorial Hermann’s Community Benefit Corporation in October 2015 launched an innovative initiative to screen for food insecurity. A tool built into Memorial Hermann’s electronic medical record system prompts doctors to ask their patients two food-related questions: Have you run out of food in the past month, or were you worried that you might?

Patients who answer “yes” to either question are then connected with the resources they need to access healthy food and other necessities. So far, the initiative has been rolled out to patients who are seen in Emergency Centers at Memorial Hermann hospitals, as well as those who seek treatment in Memorial Hermann’s Neighborhood Health Centers and school-based clinics throughout the region.  In recent months, the questions have been adopted by practitioners in the Memorial Hermann Medical Group, a network of primary care physicians and advanced practice providers that sees patients in more than  60 locations across the Houston area.

Dr. Laura Armstrong, a family practice doctor at Memorial Hermann Medical Group’s Physicians at Sugar Creek, told Kaiser Health News that the clinic was surprised to discover how prevalent food insecurity can be in a community. According to the most recent data, about 11 percent of the more than 9,000 patients screened at the practice responded that they lacked sufficient access to food, a much higher rate than she and others anticipated.

The feedback has helped Dr. Armstrong and others rethink their approaches with patients. If a patient can’t afford food, he or she may not be able to pay for a pricey prescription, so the team tries to think of different ways they can help patients stay healthy within their budgets, whether that’s switching to a more affordable medication or helping them access healthier food to better manage their chronic diseases.

Patients at Physicians at Sugar Creek don’t have to venture far to find fresh produce. Dr. Armstrong simply points them outdoors, where she’s planted a community garden bursting with vegetables ripe for the picking.

“It just seemed like something that would really fit with our mission of health promotion, not just treating illness,” she told the Houston Chronicle last year when the garden opened.

Planning is underway to roll out the food insecurity screening shortly across Memorial Hermann’s entire system of 19 hospitals and more than 200 outpatient clinics. Meanwhile, the system is hosting its annual food drive, now through July 20, with the goal of collecting 14,124 pounds of nonperishable foods and $59,655 in donations to help provide assistance to families during the critical summer months.

”Hunger is a real problem in our community with very real consequences,” said Carol Paret, Memorial Hermann’s Chief Community Health Officer and Senior Vice President. “We are committed to advancing the health of our community and that means helping address some of the challenges like food insecurity that can have dire impacts on people’s health.”

Want to help? Your donation to the Memorial Hermann Food Drive can help feed adults and children throughout Greater Houston who need assistance during the summer months.

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