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Published on June 27, 2022

volunteers at feeding south dakota food truck

Health and Hunger: Facing Food Insecurity

Every six weeks, a caravan of cars and pickups lines a road near the First United Methodist Church parking lot in Miller, SD. This spot in the Hand County capital becomes a free grocery store for hungry families.

“For many families, the three meals a day tradition no longer exists,” said Bryan Breitling, MBA, administrator of Avera Hand County Memorial Hospital in Miller, SD.

Breitling said food insecurity – the idea of not knowing when, where or how your next meal might take place – is a fact of life in nearly every county across the Midwest. In exam rooms, teams talk to patients about meals and food available. Nurses and doctors realize it’s hard to think about your health when you’re hungry.

Facts from Feeding South Dakota show how truly hard it is for some families to get meals on the table:

  • More than 10% or almost 14 million U.S. households were food insecure in 2020, with an increase from 2019 of almost 2%.
  • One out of every nine individuals in South Dakota is food insecure, including more than 16% of children.
  • 13.7% of individuals live at or below the poverty line

“The families who come to the food truck have empty refrigerators and no money to get food,” said Breitling. “Direct care is only one part of our work – we realize they might need indirect support to get families fed.”

Avera continues to act in the face of food insecurity.

“I grew up in a rural area where there were limited choices for fresh fruits and vegetables year round,” said Lindsey Meyers, Avera Vice President of Public Relations, who leads Community Partnerships. “Avera supports access to healthy foods as that is a basic need which supports so many other components that create a healthful life.”

Avera Partners to Make a Difference

Avera isn’t in the business of food distribution. But when it comes to people’s long-term health, food, or lack of it, can cause health issues. It’s considered a social determinant of health: factors that affect your health and quality of life.

That’s why Avera looks outside the clinics to work with partners to help solve these challenges.

Avera puts its mission into action by supporting many organizations throughout our footprint. Three examples include:

  • The Feeding South Dakota mobile food pantry, which serves communities across the state, large and small, including ones like Miller S.D.
  • Sioux Falls Thrive, which focuses on key needs of school-age children, including charitable food resources to remote neighborhoods.
  • United Way programs across Avera’s entire footprint.
  • Meals on Wheels programs provide for those who most often cannot leave their home due to illness or income.

How Hunger Impacts Health

The 38 million Americans who face food insecurity also face health impacts, and they include:

  • Hunger affects your mental health: Constant worry about your next meal leads to depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that mothers with school-aged children who face severe hunger are 56% more likely to have PTSD and 53% more likely to have severe depression.
  • Hunger impacts school performance: Empty stomachs cause children to be cranky, hyperactive and aggressive. Developmental delays and learning disabilities increase with food insecurity, and 50% of kids facing hunger repeat a grade.
  • Hunger raises risk of chronic diseases: According to the USDA, 58% of the households that receive food from pantries have one member with high blood pressure, and 33% have family diabetes.

“It’s much more than most of us imagine,” Meyers said. “More than 12 million kids, as well as 7 million or more seniors will miss meals or go hungry today.”

Making Food Available to Everyone

The Midwest might be “farm country” but it has plenty of food deserts, which are areas where nutritious food is hard to find. Maybe a small town’s only grocery store or is miles away by car. The state has food deserts across the state, including in Sioux Falls.

“We can see how food deserts are commonplace, even in our back yards,” said Amanda Viau Hopkins, Food Service Director at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. “It just takes a little bit of empathy to see them.”

Hopkins served as Avera’s representative when the health system joined a food insecurity task force. She volunteers for Sioux Falls Thrive, a food truck service that regularly serves neighborhoods in the city. The group’s Tuesday night service usually provides more than 150 hot meals to locals, as well as other groceries.

“Those who come often are getting meals to help neighbors, too,” she said. “There are few grocery stores and limited public transportation. They live in Sioux Falls, but they’re certainly in a food desert.”

Inside the church, tables are lined with fresh bread, milk and dairy products, fruit, and other food.

“Our team and those who support the effort are truly ‘in’ the community when we do this work, and these meals can save lives,” she added. “We hear the stories of these tough realities – we feel their gratitude as well.”

Joining the efforts of the many organizations that aim to increase food security, “I’ve come to understand the most important outcome for children and families in need is to learn that people care about them. This community wants them to be successful. And one of the ways the community shows that care and concern is through warm, full tummies at dinner time,” said Michelle Erpenbach, President of Sioux Falls Thrive.

See how Avera is working with communities across our footprint.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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