Who’s Hungry?

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It is no secret that growing income inequality is one of the major issues facing the nation today. Close to 50 million Americans, or 1 in 6, live in poverty and 1 in 3 children are now projected to live in poverty at some point in their lifetime. But did you know, up to 1 in 3 kids in San Francisco may go to bed hungry tonight?

As the price of housing transforms our city into one of the most expensive in the country, the national income gap seems to have landed on our doorstep. And while this topic has garnered robust media attention and local public debate, the focus on poverty remains cursory, at best. Here, the housing crisis is literally changing the face of the city, and yet it is hard to identify who is most affected by the fickle pendulum of the economy and it is easy to make affordable housing the center of the conversation.

But the impact of poverty extends from the most recognizable needs in our community to one of the least – hunger. So let’s talk about it. Who’s hungry in our city?

Meet Lani. Lani’s grandmother originally came to San Francisco from Samoa in the late 1970s and her family has lived and worked in the Bay Area ever since. Like many of us, she dreams of owning a home in the city one day, but like a growing population of San Franciscans, her immediate need is food for her family.

Lani is a 35-year-old working mother of 2 and the only employed adult in her household. Her husband was a construction worker who, because of poor health, is physically unable to work. And after losing her mother in 2008, she and her husband became legal guardians to her younger siblings. That means, it’s all up to Lani to make ends meet.

As a high school graduate, she’s worked in food and cleaning services, but with the downturn in the economy, consistent work has been hard to find. In 2012, she became a certified nursing assistant and found a part-time position that offered $14 an hour but no benefits. She took it.

All 6 members of her household live in a government subsidized apartment in Hunter’s Point and yet because of her new income they recently found out they no longer qualify for food stamps or CalWorks. Struggling to get by without any additional aid, they rely on food from her church to make it to the end of the week. Sometimes, that is only a bag of rice and a can of vegetables. Her kids, aged 6 and 7, are just starting primary school. Without the free breakfast and lunch they receive there, she says she “probably wouldn’t be able to find something nutritious for them to eat at home.”

Hunger is a problem. But the issue here is more complex than the physical sensations of inadequate caloric intake. The more insidious challenge facing family’s like Lani’s is food insecurity, or limited or uncertain access to the resources to buy, store, and prepare the nutritious and culturally appropriate food necessary to support a healthy lifestyle.

According to the 2013 San Francisco Food Security Task Force’s annual report, 1 in 4 San Francisco residents live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of 4, that’s about an income $47,100 per year. These low-income families make up a quarter of the city’s residents are the most likely to be food insecure. But the population we seldom recognize, despite having similarly high rates of food insecurity, is our city’s children.

For these communities, food insecurity is literally changing their lives. There is mounting scientific evidence showing that food insecurity is related to poor health outcomes like increased risk of adult chronic disease including diabetes and heart disease, and in children, increased risk of obesity and learning and behavior problems. And recent data from San Francisco General Hospital’s Community to Clinic Linkage Program, indicates almost half of the patients seeking urgent care at our county hospital are food insecure.

This is a public health problem and it sits at the intersection of income inequality and poverty in every city in America, including our own. In December 2013, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors issued a charge to local legislators and community organizations, to eliminate food insecurity in San Francisco by 2020. In collaboration with the San Francisco Food Security Task Force, help address this important issue!

Here are some things you can do today:

  • Support your local food bank by making a monetary donation, hosting a food drive, or donating food. The most needed items are: tuna, canned meat, peanut butter, soup, chili, beans, cereal, canned fruit and vegetables, and granola bars. Visit the SF-Marin Food Bank website to learn more.
  • Of all the students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), 60% qualify for free or reduced priced meals, but less than half of those who are eligible are enrolled to receive this benefit. If you know of a child who may qualify, go the SFUSD website to apply now!
  • As summer approaches, even fewer low-come students have access to nutritious food. Know of a child who may need food over the summer? Go to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families website to find out how to enroll them in the After School Snack and Summer Meal Programs.
  • If you are a medical provider, start universally screening all of your patients for food insecurity. Here is a quick, validated tool you can use. If they screen positive, call 211 to connect them to food services!
  • Contact your state representative to support AB-2385. This bill would create the Market Match Program to provide additional income to recipients of programs like food stamps, to purchase food at farmer’s markets. A similar measure is being considered for San Francisco. Want to learn more? Visit the California Legislature website.
  • Join your local pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics at Supervisor John Avalos’ Office in City Hall Room 244 to view a free photo exhibit entitled “Who’s Hungry? You Can’t Tell by Looking!” This exhibit captures the faces of local children to raise awareness of this often invisible need.

National rates of poverty are the highest they have been in decades and they impact our city in unique ways. But when you ask Lani what she wants for her kids, she doesn’t talk about eliminating financial stress or putting food on the table. She simply says, “I want them to become someone.” Healthy food and snacks are the building blocks to “become someone.” If recognizing the problem starts with asking the right questions, perhaps it is time we all asked, “Who’s Hungry?”

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Structural Inequality and the Future of Medicine

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4 weeks ago, I published an article on Kevin.MD that garnered a lot of attention. It was titled The Myth of the Entitled Single Mother Remains as Relevant as Ever.* In it, I reversed the popularized notion that single mothers are a societal liability and suggested that instead, they are powerful forces in our local economies and influential leaders of future generations. I presented the idea that how society thinks about single mothers affects how we fiscally prioritize their needs. The point was, stigmatizing public rhetoric informs pubic policy in ways that perpetuate inequality and contribute to poor health. In response, however, I received a number of comments, many from other physicians, suggesting that such a topic was not “medical” enough to warrant physician concern.

That sentiment sits at the crux of one of the most contentious debates in medicine and frames one of the most important questions facing clinicians today. If inequality drives poor health, what is the physician’s role in addressing the structural forces in society that perpetuate inequality?

To answer this question, we must first unpack the ways enduring public narratives inform our institutions and shape opportunities in America. We must talk about how structural forces in society can align to create predictable patterns of disenfranchisement, including inter-generational poverty and poor health. Let’s get started!

The archetypes society erects to distinguish populations, commonly by race, gender, socioeconomic, marital, or immigration status, are not simple social tropes that define broad categorizations of people. Over time, and historically in fact, these social constructs lay deep roots in the political processes that govern society, processes that in turn, inform many of the institutions on which society relies, including the justice system, the education system, and the public health system. This pattern of influence is problematic because it allows shared public stereotypes to drive major public policy. This institutionalizes bias and creates inequality. And as we know, inequality drives poor health.

Let’s take one example of this and flesh it out. Look at the effect of race and gender on incarceration rates in America and the associated health consequences.

African-Americans make up 13.1% of the US population and yet African-American males alone, make up 38% of those incarcerated in federal and state prisons today. That means Black males are 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than White males and if these trends continue, 1 in 3 Black males will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetime.

The origin of the stark racial disparities in the US criminal justice system is complex and multifactorial. It is, in part, related to the disproportionately high rates of poverty,** unemployment, and low educational attainment in African-American communities. But it is also driven by a public narrative that associates Black males with criminality. That is why, even when you control for the crime rate, Black males are more likely to be arrested, once arrested, more likely to be convicted, and once convicted, more likely to face longer prison sentences than their White peers. This criminalization of African-American males is far from benign and, in fact, may have adverse health consequences for Black children and Black families.

When 1 in 3 African-American males are projected to be removed from their communities, often at the age of greatest productivity, it has profound effects on the communities in which these men live.*** Without their earning potential, these families disproportionately rely on the income of single mothers, many of whom live on the brink of poverty.**** Children who live in poverty are more likely to have poor health as adults, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and depression. What is more, there is evidence to suggest that these risks persist, despite changing social class in adulthood. That means, there are physiologic pathways whereby systems of inequality and social stress may act to create immutable changes to children’s bodies, affecting everything from their brain development to their DNA. These changes can potentially be passed down to future generations, allowing under-resourced social environments to create predictable patterns of disease.

When considered in this way, it is easy to see how shared public narratives can become entangled in policies that systematically disenfranchise families and communities, dismissing productive members of society, shaping local economic opportunities, and informing the health of our future generations. When the life expectancy of a child can be predicted by the zip code in which they live, it exposes important drivers of health and disease in America. As physicians, we must dissect the threads that connect sociopolitical environments to biological consequences. If that is not “medical” enough to warrant our concern, I don’t know what is.

This is the future of medicine and it requires physicians confront issues of stigma and inequality as a function of their clinical duty to promote health and wellness. Doing so will certainly be a challenge. Success will rely on our ability to understand the impact social, political, and economic environments have on the population’s health and, to systematically incorporate this framework into the canon of medical scholarship and medical education. From there, we will need to build interdisciplinary models that bridge political action with health impacts. Jonathan Metzl and Helena Hansen have mapped a way to do that in their article entitled, “Structural Competency: theorizing a new medical engagement with stigma and inequality.” There is much to do be done. Let’s get to work!

Footnotes:

* Kevin.MD. is an online medical publication. You can also find this article on my site here!

** Communities in poverty have higher rates of crime regardless of racial composition.

*** This lends a new urgency to addressing the national gender wage gap, a gap that is wider for women of color, as communities of color may disproportionately rely on the income of women. It also underscores the importance of creating pipelines to higher education for men and women of color, to both supplant the pipeline to prison and to position women of color to occupy leadership roles in the community.

**** Many states also legally revoke prior felon’s voting rights and increasingly, laws and policies are being enacted to limit prior felon’s ability to: obtain employment, receive government benefits like food stamps, access public housing, or qualify for student loans. This results in 1 in 13 African-Americans no longer being able to vote today and prevents countless others from making meaningful contributions to their families and communities.

Health Care Issues in Homeless Children – Nov 2009

While at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, I was fortunate to complete a 4 week elective at Johns Hopkins University. The elective introduced me to my friend Nancy Newman and The Ark Preschool – the only state accredited preschool for homeless children in Baltimore City.

This is where I learned the intimate connection between housing and health and why children with unstable housing are uniquely vulnerable to negative health outcomes including poor nutrition, developmental delay, obesity, anemia, and under-immunization that places them at risk for infectious diseases. This article describes my experiences.