Families in Uniondale Union Free School District receive meals at...

Families in Uniondale Union Free School District receive meals at a drive-through food distribution bank at Turtle Hook Middle School, in 2020. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

For hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life — is a harsh reality.

Food insecurity is widespread in New York and takes a devastating toll on the health of our residents, as recently reported by NYHealth, a private, statewide foundation. Its Survey of Food and Health found that food-insecure individuals are twice as likely as food-secure individuals to rate their health as “fair” or “poor”; 69% of food-insecure individuals reported having at least one chronic physical or mental illness.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 2 million New Yorkers were food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The disruption caused by the pandemic, followed by the sharpest increases in food prices in 40 years, has only made food insecurity more acute.

As a physician and hospital administrator, I have seen firsthand the debilitating effects of food insecurity on individuals and health care systems in New York. Food is medicine. It is the foundation of health and well-being.

We know that consistently eating calorically dense, nutritionally depleted food accelerates disease. Adults in households with food insecurity are 40% likelier to be diagnosed with a chronic condition. In fact, persistent food insecurity is associated with a higher probability of diabetes, stroke, hypertension, obesity, hepatitis, cancer, asthma, arthritis, COPD, and kidney disease

At Catholic Health, we are working diligently to identify and support people who are food insecure. We screen people in our emergency departments and physician practices, asking how many times in the last week or month they felt they did not have enough food to eat. However, identifying food insecurity is only the first step.

As inflation hits everyone’s budget and with Thanksgiving approaching, it’s a good time to think about those in need and give what you can to charities that work to reduce food insecurity.

We’re partnering with community organizations to provide access to healthy food and education to increase adherence to healthy food choices. Long Island Cares is providing Catholic Health emergency departments with food “to go” bags for individuals who are identified as being food insecure. We’re also collaborating with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island to enroll individuals in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Catholic Health’s goal is to improve health outcomes and close the gap for individuals struggling with food insecurity and chronic disease. We want them to have access to healthy food for themselves and their families and show them how and why to make healthy food choices. And we are seeing results, such as reduced hospital readmissions and patients reporting a better understanding of the connection between what they eat and their health.

By focusing on food insecurity, we can improve quality of life and help bend the disease curve to prevent many instances of disease. That's powerful. That’s focusing on health care versus sick care. Not only does it improve quality of life for individuals, but it also lowers the cost of treating chronic disease.

Community partnerships are vital to addressing food insecurity and identifying the root causes driving food insecurity in New York and throughout the nation. Solving this issue will require an active partnership between a vast network of charities, food banks, government, and the private sector. Together, we can make New York a model for ending food insecurity.

This guest essay reflects the views of Dr. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, president and chief executive of Catholic Health.