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Richmond doctors work to combat child hunger as 18% of patients face malnutrition

Posted at 6:07 AM, Apr 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 04:20:46-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Health experts are sounding the alarm that about 10% of Virginia families don't have adequate access to healthy food.

In Richmond, doctors at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU said they're seeing between 18% and 20% of patients who are facing food insufficiency.

"Unfortunately, at our practice, we're seeing about double that rate because we serve a low income population," explained Dr. Bergen Nelson, associate professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. "And families of color, unfortunately, face disproportionate amounts of food insecurity."

That’s why she and her team recently launched a new program called "Food is Medicine," where they ask patients and their families a few questions to determine whether they are in need of a healthy meal to take home that day.

"We ask them to answer within the last 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more, and we also ask within the last 12 months food that we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to buy more," she noted. "And we've added this third question, do you need food today?"

If a family answers yes — thanks to a partnership with Feed More — Nelson and her team are able to give the family a box of fruits, vegetables and snacks to hold them over for a few days before they can help get them set up with Feed More for regular meals.

VCU Health patients who are referred back to Feed More can call their "Hunger Hotline," where volunteers gather their information and refer callers to their local food pantries and other food resources within their partner agency network.

"If a child is not getting enough healthy food, we know that that can lead to more frequent illnesses to having longer time recovering from illnesses, more likely to be hospitalized," Nelson noted. "It also is associated with developmental delays and behavioral problems and school problems, and so we know all the things we want as pediatricians for children to grow up healthy, it's impacting all of those things in a negative way."

While the pandemic has made this issue of food insecurity even greater, Nelson worries the rising cost of gas, along with groceries could have them seeing even more children struggling in the coming weeks and months.

"There's the cost of living increasing and inflation, I absolutely am concerned that it may get worse," she said. "But that makes it even more important that we double down on these efforts to connect families to resources."

Because of the pandemic, Nelson said a lot of families have deferred well-child visits, which means doctors didn’t have the ability to check on food insufficiency.

While it can be difficult for families to ask for help, Nelson and her team ask that you not be afraid to reach out.

"Food insufficiency is a public health crisis in Virginia and across the country," explained Nelson. "It affects children and their development, and it's really unacceptable because solutions do exist."

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