Pediatricians step up to end poverty and hunger

April 13, 2016
More doctors are asking their patients questions in order to detect food insecurity in families. Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

By Cynthia Woodside, Bread for the World Institute

There is a consensus that the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was largely due to advocacy and actions taken by civil society – groups outside the government structure. During the 15 years covered by the MDGs, civil society was a major factor in the reduction of deep poverty by more than half and in the significant strides made toward ending hunger; increasing educational opportunities, especially for girls; and ending preventable child deaths.

With the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), civil society, again, has a major role and huge stake in advocating and taking action to end poverty and hunger by 2030 -- worldwide, including in the United States.

A number of groups, including Bread for the World and others from the faith-based community, are actively promoting achievement of the goals. Another leader of note is the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). AAP has historically been focused on Goal 3–Good Health and Well-Being, but in the past few months, it has actively engaged its membership on Goal 1–Ending Poverty and Goal 2–Ending Hunger. AAP has clearly recognized that all of the goals are inter-related – that improving the health of children and families is dependent on reducing poverty and hunger.

As Bread for the World Institute’s 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect: Ending Hunger, Improving Health, Reducing Inequality, lays out, hunger and food insecurity take a huge toll on the health and well-being of children and adults alike, but the most devastating and long-term impacts are felt by children. Compared with children under the age of 4 who are food-secure, young children who are food-insecure are 56 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health, 17 percent more likely to have been hospitalized, and 60 percent more likely to be at risk for developmental delays. Based on the evidence, The Nourishing Effect called for the widespread use of a two-question hunger screen, developed by Children’s Health Watch in Boston, to identify and address hunger as a way of improving health and lowering healthcare costs.

In December 2015, AAP approved a policy statement calling for its 60,000 members to begin using the two-question hunger screen to identify who among their young patients and their parents are food-insecure. The statement calls on AAP members to:

  1. use the hunger screen at scheduled health-maintenance visits, or sooner if indicated
  2. learn about and refer families to community resources, such as SNAP, WIC, school nutrition programs, and local food pantries
  3. advocate for increasing access to and funding for nutrition programs; and
  4. supporting interdisciplinary research on the relationship between stress, food insecurity, and adverse health consequences.

Then, as pediatricians around the country began to use the hunger screen, AAP issued another policy statement in March 2016, calling on members to begin screening their patients for poverty. Under the poverty screen, pediatricians are directed to:

  1. ask families during well-child visits about their basic needs, such as food, housing, and heat, and refer those who need help to community resources
  2. help parents identify and build on protective factors within their families to create resilience in their children; and
  3. advocate for public policies to mitigate the effects of poverty on child health, including policies that increase access to health care, healthy food, and safe and affordable housing.

If the 2030 SDGs are to be met, government institutions at all levels must refocus their attention, redouble their efforts, and allocate the resources needed to be successful. But government cannot do it alone. All of society must be engaged. The actions taken by AAP serve as an outstanding example of how actions taken by each of us and each of our organizations can have an impact on the successful implementation of the SDGs – to end hunger, eliminate poverty, improve health, reduce inequality, eliminate food waste, create jobs, achieve gender equity, protect the planet, and achieve peace and justice. The time for action is now. The clock is ticking – 14 years and 8 months until 2030.

Cynthia Woodside is senior domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute. 

Compared with children under the age of 4 who are food secure, young children who are food insecure are 56 percent more likely to be in fair or poor health.

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