Not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from causes more than just a rumble in the stomach. It turns out it can cause a host of health problems, some of which take years to manifest.
Known as “food insecurity,” it’s a problem that typically afflicts around 10 percent of the population on Cape Cod, or around 28,000 people. This year, because of the pandemic and economic disaster, about 650,000 people in eastern Massachusetts are projected to be food-insecure, up about 59 percent. In Barnstable County, food insecurity is expected to jump by more than 70 percent.
That’s a giant red flag for public health officials, who recognize that food insecurity and hunger cause significant health problems for people of all ages.
A 2014 study by Feeding America – a network of food pantries that includes the Greater Boston Food Bank, which supports food pantries on Cape Cod – paints a typical picture. A detailed survey of more than 60,000 food pantry clients revealed an obvious truth: that not knowing where one’s next meal is coming from causes incredible stress. Families cope with the stress in various ways, but a chief strategy is to turn to inexpensive, unhealthy food that gets rid of hunger but doesn’t provide adequate nutrition.
A lack of nutrition isn’t just a problem for children with growing bodies. According to the Feeding America study, one-third of food-insecure households have a member with diabetes, and 58 percent include someone with high blood pressure. Those numbers increase dramatically for families that include senior citizens.
When putting food on the table is difficult, families tend to prioritize it over other budget items, choosing between groceries and utilities, rent or mortgage payments, education, and medical care. That can cause a deepening cycle of hunger and health problems. Unable to maintain a good diet, people can’t manage chronic health problems. Mental health concerns like depression and anxiety are similarly worsened by food insecurity, experts say.
Christine Menard of the Family Pantry of Cape Cod said food insecurity isn’t limited to one socioeconomic group.
“It cuts across the entire population, whether you’re a senior or young or family,” she said. Locally, the pandemic’s impact has been greatest on seniors, who may have trouble getting to food pantries because of mobility issues or out of fear of contracting COVID-19, Menard said.
“We’ve really been pushing our mobile operation,” she said, and between the food trucks that visit area towns and the drive-through system employed at the pantry in North Harwich, and Family Pantry has successfully adapted to the pandemic. Food insecurity has long been a problem on the Cape, and like other social problems, the pandemic has brought it to the fore.
For the last 10 years, the nonprofit Sustainable CAPE (Center for Agricultural Preservation and Education) has been working to boost the local food infrastructure and encourage consumers to buy locally grown and raised foods. Founding Director Francie Randolph said her group works with schools and child care centers to encourage them to plant gardens and understand how food is grown so they can make healthier food choices.
The group also supports farmers markets around the Cape and Islands, and hosts “educational farmers markets” in Provincetown and Truro. The goal is to encourage healthy nutrition across all socioeconomic groups on the Cape by offering incentives that work with nutrition programs. The market is able to accept benefits from SNAP (the program formerly known as Food Stamps), HIP and WIC, sometimes doubling the benefits to boost customers’ buying power. Other incentives support senior citizens and veterans.
“It’s to enable everyone to understand that there is a strong, resilient local food system right here,” Randolph said. The result is a boost to the local economy, and better health both for shoppers and for the Cape’s environment, she said. Various changes were put in place to ensure that the farmers markets follow COVID-19 protocols.
During the pandemic, more people turned to online ordering to obtain their food, which disadvantaged local farmers who were unable to sell online. “That was creating a much more uneven playing field and stripping funds from our local economy,” Randolph said. In response, her organization launched www.ShopLocalFood.org, where patrons can shop online and then pick up their food at a farmers market in Provincetown, Truro or Brewster.
To find out about food assistance, visit the Cape Cod Hunger Network at www.CapeCodHungerNetwork.org, or call your local council on aging.