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What Food Issues Mean to Health Care

A new policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that 3.8 million Californians in 2009 had times during the year when they could not afford food.

Based on data from the California Health Interview Survey, the new study of showed a marked rise from the 2.5 million Californians with food insecurity eight years before, in 2001. That’s an increase of about half (49%), during a time period where California’s population grew by about 10%.

“The numbers are quite striking,” said UCLA researcher Gail Harrison. “We knew what the trend was going to be, but this was a much more striking increase than I thought there would be.”

One big change in the numbers, she said, is that food insecurity hit all cross-sections of the low-income population.

“There have always been parts of the population that are hit more than others — such as Latinos, or single-parent households — but in this case, it went up across the board,” Harrison said. “This increase in food insecurity affected the entire lower income, and that speaks to the economic downturn.”

In terms of health policy and legislation, Harrison said one of the answers in California might lie in doing a better job of tapping federal dollars for nutrition incentive programs.

“There have been pretty low participation rates in most of these nutrition incentive programs, and California could do better with that,” Harrison said. “And that’s federal money coming into the state.”

There’s another health consequence that did not appear in this study, Harrison said.

“We’ve done some analysis that’s not published yet,” Harrison said. “Where adults with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, are more likely to have a prescription and not fill it, if they have food insecurity.”

If some Californians can’t afford food, they also can’t afford medicines, she said.

“That means they’re more likely to land in the emergency room,” Harrison said.

Harrison hopes state legislators can address this problem by targeting federal money. “California is one of the harder hit states,” she said, “and we’re seeing the consequences right here.”

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