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January 2015

Could Food be a Prescription for Chronic Disease?

New Data Released That Reveals 4 Percent Decline in Local ‘Meal Gap’

Food is more than just fuel; it can also be medicine. That was the premise of today’s Hunger Action Summit, an annual forum on local hunger organized by Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties and Santa Clara University.

SAN JOSE and SANTA CLARA, Calif., Jan 30 –Access to nutritious food plays a critical role in health. Studies show that a healthy diet can help to prevent – as well as support the successful treatment of – a number of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. Food is more than just fuel; it can also be medicine. That was the premise of today’s Hunger Action Summit, an annual forum on local hunger organized by Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties and Santa Clara University.

The summit is sponsored by Santa Clara University’s Food and Agribusiness Institute, part of the Leavey School of Business, and held at the university’s Locatelli Center.

“Food as Medicine: The Intersection of Hunger and Health” brought together local leaders to not only examine the health consequences of hunger on children and adults, but also to explore innovative ways anti-hunger advocates can partner with health providers to ensure that everyone has access to one of the most basic prescriptions for good health: nutritious food.

Hunger Index Shows Slight Improvement

The number of households that can’t meet their daily food needs declined this year along with the “meal gap,” according to the 2013 Hunger Index. Released during the summit every year, the Hunger Index measures the gap between how many meals are needed for low-income residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to eat three meals a day and how many meals they are able to purchase on their own or acquire through federal food-assistance programs like CalFresh (food stamps) or local organizations like Second Harvest. The difference is known as the “meal gap.”

The 2013 Hunger Index shows that an estimated 814 million meals were required for all low-income households in 2013. Researchers estimate that these families were able to afford enough food to provide 417 million meals, or a little more than half of their daily food needs. Food-assistance programs provided 221 million meals, leaving a gap of 176 million meals. While the gap is still too big, it is showing a downward trend compared to the 2012 meal gap of 184 million meals. The number of low-income households – measured as those earning less than $50,000 annually – also declined from 260,000 in 2012 to 256,000 in 2013.

“The Hunger Index improved slightly in both counties, reflecting improved economic conditions and increased support from food-assistance providers like Second Harvest,” said S. Andrew Starbird, dean of Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business and co-creator of the Hunger Index. “The number of households making less than $50,000 annually has declined even as the total number of households in the two counties has increased.”

The decline in the number of low-income households and the increase in food assistance helped to close the meal gap in 2013. Food assistance from programs like CalFresh, school meals, WIC, and senior nutrition as well as from Second Harvest and its partner agencies grew from 217 million meals in 2012 to 221 million meals in 2013. While the overall increase in the number of meals provided was less than 2%, the increase for Second Harvest was 16% - from 37 million meals in 2012 to 43 million meals in 2013.

“It’s a good sign that the improving economy may finally be helping some of the families we serve,” said Kathy Jackson, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. “But hunger remains a serious issue in our community. Too many of our neighbors aren’t getting enough to eat, and that can have serious implications for their health. Second Harvest is providing food to nearly 250,000 people every month, and the number we serve has not declined significantly since the recession, even with the local economic boom. The high cost of living is making it increasingly difficult for those with low incomes to purchase food.”

It takes more than $82,000 per year for a family of four to pay its bills and put food on the table in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. However, the vast majority of Second Harvest clients earn $20,000 or less, according to Hunger in America 2014, a nationwide study by Feeding America that includes local data.

Hunger Takes a Toll on Health

The human body requires certain nutrients to stay healthy, but those struggling with hunger often have a difficult time getting enough nutritious food. According to the recent hunger study, about two-thirds of Second Harvest’s clients purchase cheap, unhealthy foods so they can stretch their food dollars. The study also showed higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure among those facing hunger with 63% of client households reporting that someone in the family had high blood pressure, compared to the national rate of 31%, and 33% reporting that someone in the household had diabetes, compared to a national rate of 9%.

“Second Harvest is working to ensure that everybody has access to the nutritious food they need to thrive,” Jackson said. “We are focused on providing healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables. More than half the food we distribute is fresh produce. In fact, Second Harvest provides more fresh produce than any other food bank in the nation.”

Last year, Second Harvest distributed more than 55 million pounds of food at 770 distribution sites in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, including pantries, soup kitchens, schools, and community centers. Nearly 30 million pounds of that was fresh produce.

Second Harvest has been on the nutrition forefront since its inception 40 years ago. In 1979, it was the first food bank in the United States to hire a nutritionist. Today Second Harvest has a nutrition rating system that helps it monitor and regulate the nutritional value of the food it provides, and more than 90 percent is of high nutritional value. In addition, Second Harvest has a team of nutritionists who work out in the community providing information and recipes for eating healthier. They are supported by Health Ambassadors, a specially trained group of community members who speak a variety of languages and help Second Harvest provide culturally appropriate nutrition education.

“Poverty, hunger, and diet-fueled health disparities are all tied together,” Jackson said. “We have to look at new ways to reduce these health disparities. It’s very difficult to succeed when your body lacks the nutrients it needs to be productive or when you are struggling with chronic health conditions. Today we brought together food policy advocates and healthcare providers to talk about some of the ways we can work together. That may mean providing produce to low-income patients being discharged from the hospital. It could be health providers screening for food insecurity so they know whether their patients are getting enough nutritious food. It might mean having people apply for CalFresh at the same time they apply for healthcare through Covered California. Nutritious food is the foundation for good health.”

The Food Bank already has a number of partnerships with local healthcare providers. For example, Second Harvest distributes food at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s health clinic in East San Jose. Second Harvest’s CalFresh outreach specialists help eligible families apply for CalFresh at 25medical centers and clinics in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. In addition, Second Harvest is working with area physicians to help them screen patients for food insecurity and refer them to food