If asked what the trending health issue has been the last two years there’s no doubt the answer would be Covid-19. The economic impact proceeding the lockdowns and the aggregated number of hospitalizations and deaths has affected many Americans on a personal level, not to mention the global impact it has had on the supply chain, health, and travel. There is a portion of the population, however, whose high health risk has put them in greater jeopardy during the Covid-19 pandemic: Low-income communities.
The prevalence of diet-related illnesses in low-income communities has been a leading comorbidity issue, the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases in a patient, among Covid-19 patients. In this article I will give some background concerning diet-related illness in these communities, what are the main factors that lead to diet-related illnesses, how the emergence of Covid-19 has been worse for communities prone to these illnesses, and what solutions can be offered.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only perpetuated health risks associated with diet-related diseases that have been present among low-income households with food insecurity for decades. A study done in the early 2000’s among low-income households in counties across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi found that food insecure individuals have 2.4 times higher risk of diabetes and hypertension. And since the 70’s, mortality rates connected with cardiovascular disease (CVD) have declined, however, about 659,000 people in the United States still die from heart disease each year—that’s 1 in every 4 deaths . Communities on the south side of Chicago (where the majority of the population represented is low-income African-Americans) made up “more than 50% of Covid-19 cases and nearly 70% of Covid-19 deaths [in Chicago city limits]…” Why were infection and mortality rates in low-income communities so high?
First, the concept known as “social determinants of health” needs to be defined and addressed for us to arrive at an informed conclusion. Boiled down it is the “view that health and illness are not randomly distributed throughout human society neither are the resources to prevent illness and its effects .” Where you are born, live, work, your age, and the systems around you that are in place to deal with illness determine health outcomes.
Before the pandemic began, socioeconomic circumstances made it less likely for them to have access to healthy food whether it’s because they live in a food desert (we have written about this before), have a disability, or less income due to unemployment.
Furthermore, they may have learned poor health behaviors or have a poor social support system which contributes to stress and poor health.
These factors naturally cause or perpetuate food-related illnesses. Now add in the effects of a pandemic like unemployment, increase in cost of healthy food, decreased public transportation, and fear of going to hospitals or clinics (one study found a decline in “food related disease diagnosis during the pandemic without the indication of a fall in prevalence of these conditions ”).
The risk is substantial. Early on, researchers began developing studies that showed a substantial increase in risk of 2-to-3 fold for infection and hospitalization among patients with diabetes and CVD.
What can be done? We agree with Michael Thomsen, a professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas, when he said, “COVID relief should place more focus on food assistance .”
We believe food-related disease comorbidity among Covid-19 patients is addressable with proper food access and education, especially among low-income and underserved communities.
Access to proper nutrition is the powerhouse that fuels a healthy immune system, fights diabetes, hypertension, and CVD, and is the best long-term solution to keep people from hospitalization. And nutrition and cooking education empowers and equips families to cook and eat healthy.
Since Well Fed’s mission focuses on food access and nutrition education, our goal is that, through providing healthy food and nutrition education, underserved individuals and families will have the good health, energy, and motivation to focus on other important areas of their lives such as acquiring a job or maintaining their mental health. They cannot focus on these fundamental steps in life while they remain at high risk for Covid-19 comorbidity. There is hope for these communities battling Covid-19 and it starts with healthy food, it starts with organizations like ours. Will you join us?