From the Bonner Food Insecurity Team Research Blog
One key to Bonner student learning is in-depth research and reflection on the issue areas which we work to address in Houston. This semester, Bonner's Food Insecurity Team began writing and publishing blog-style posts with their mini research questions and reflections regarding food insecurity in Houston and in the United States, and about the connection of food insecurity to other issues in poverty. Below is one post from Sophomore Allen Huang, and more posts can be found on the FIT Blog website, linked at the end of this post.
COVID-19: How the Pre-Existing American Health Crisis Became Our Achilles Heel
March 23, 2021
By Allen Huang*
As the United States rounds a full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is significant to understand that the SARS-CoV-2 has touched the lives of nearly every American. It was around this time a year ago that drastic measures were implemented to mitigate the spread of a virus we did not yet fully understand -- our daily lives as we knew them came to a screeching halt. As the death toll surpassed half a million in the United States alone, we must respectfully remember those who have passed and purposefully examine what we can and must do to prevent this from happening again.
Ever since I began college, I have been grateful to work with local community partners to combat food insecurity. Defined by the USDA as having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods or the uncertain ability to acquire these foods in socially acceptable ways, the food insecurity rate in Harris County alone averages 15%, greater than the nationwide rate of close to 11% . My hands-on involvement at local food pantries brought me close to food, and I began thinking, “Is just receiving food simply enough, or should food insecure individuals receive healthy, nutritionally dense foods?”
Common sense dictates that our bodies, the tough, working machines that propel our every action, can only be as healthy as what we put in them. For food insecure individuals, receiving adequate amounts of nutritionally dense foods may be magnitudes more difficult, and this disproportionately affects their health outcomes. In fact, the Economic Research Service, a component of the USDA, found that “lower food security is associated with higher probability of each of the chronic diseases examined [in the study] — hypertension, coronary heart disease (CHD), hepatitis, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease”  .The study even concluded that “food security status is more strongly predictive of chronic illness in some cases even than income.” So far, we know that food insecure individuals experience difficulty acquiring nutritionally adequate foods, and we know that these same individuals are more likely to develop a chronic illness.
This brings me back to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve heard the words “underlying medical conditions” and “pre-existing health conditions” as it relates to those most at risk for being severely ill from COVID-19. The CDC currently maintains that individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart conditions, obesity, Type 2 diabetes mellitus, and high blood pressure among others are or are likely to be at an increased risk for severe illness . Furthermore, chronic illnesses such as certain heart conditions, lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes are also among the leading causes of death in the United States, with heart disease leading the rest . To make matters worse, more than 40% of American adults over the age of 20 are considered obese . It is not enough to say that having a chronic health condition increases the likelihood of severe illness (and by extension, death) from COVID-19; Americans do have these chronic health conditions, and as a nation, we have been disproportionately affected from COVID-19 because of it.
We’ve been inundated with pandemic figures and news over the past year, but it’s been rather disappointing to see that we are not connecting the dots and talking about the points I’ve introduced above. Rather, the only public mention I have seen occurred just before CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield departed prior to President Biden’s incoming administration. When he was asked why he thought the United States has performed worse than the rest of the world, he argued that “one of the reasons we're having more significant death in this country than, say, Sweden is because unfortunately, the underlying health conditions — with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and the significant health disparities that we have in these illnesses in our nation — haven't been effectively addressed” . There are a number of reasons we have fared worse than other nations, and anyone could argue that there were many, many shortcomings with regards to our own pandemic response, but it is hard to ignore the possibility that our own bodies were ill-prepared even before SARS-CoV-2 arrived on our shores.
If, as a nation, we haven’t been addressing these underlying health concerns properly, then we surely are not addressing the health disparities across certain populations either. Once this pandemic is over, I would not be surprised if the data shows that food insecure individuals have been one group disproportionately affected and impacted by COVID-19.
So what does this all mean going forward? We must draw greater attention to the health disparities of this country and work towards being healthier, for it will benefit our well-being and lessen the toll on our healthcare system. (I for one will throw my support behind mandated K-12 recess.) We need to combat food insecurity while also directing specific attention towards the health needs of those individuals -- fixing one problem while ignoring the others is not a permanent solution among the complex, intertwining network of food insecurity, socioeconomic factors, and chronic illnesses. Food distribution organizations can be openly thoughtful of specific clientele needs and exercise conscious decision-making regarding distributed food items where appropriate, although I recognize these efforts may be curbed in times of crisis and dire need. Finally, much can be discussed regarding the service that my peers and I perform, but we can start by evaluating our plans and what we do on a simple question: are we absentmindedly distributing food for the sake of filling bags, car trunks, and refrigerators, or are we being purposeful to prevent the perpetuation or worsening of health disparities?
All in all, let’s not be afraid to point out our shortcomings and work together as a team -- as a nation -- to come out of this challenging past year more prepared and stronger than ever. With the herculean resolve of Americans, I’m confident we will continue to help our neighbors and uplift those in need.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you continue the conversation.
 “Food Insecurity Rate.” Houston State of Health, Conduent Healthy Communities Institute, July 2020, www.houstonstateofhealth.com/indicators/index/view?indicatorId=2107&localeId=2675.
 Fryar CD, Carroll MD, Afful J. Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and severe obesity among adults aged 20 and over: United States, 1960–1962 through 2017–2018. NCHS Health E-Stats. 2020
 Granitz, Peter, et al. Outgoing CDC Director Warns Of Pandemic's Peak: 'We're About To Be In The Worst Of It', NPR , 15 Jan. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/01/15/957287120/outgoing-cdc-director-warns-of-peak-pandemic-were-about-to-be-in-the-worst-of-it. Accessed 22 Feb. 2021.
 Gregory, C. A., & Coleman-Jensen, A. (2017). Food insecurity, chronic disease, and health among working-age adults. Economic Research Report, 235. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
 Kochanek KD, Xu JQ, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2019. NCHS Data Brief, no 395. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020.
 "People with Certain Medical Conditions.” COVID-19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Feb. 2021, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html.
*Disclaimer: The blog below is a work product produced by the result of independent student research efforts and discussion among FIT Research Club members. Any information included does not, and is not intended to, constitute expert advice. The opinions expressed within the content below are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Houston, the University of Houston Honors College, or UH Bonner Leaders.