How often does the topic of food insecurity come across your desk, or table? We teamed up with Temple University’s Elizabeth Neil PhD, LAT, ATC and Jamie L. Mansell, PhD, LAT, ATC to discuss.

For many of us, we face a series of daily decisions concerning what we are going to eat, but a growing population questions if they can eat that day.  According to the US Department of Agriculture, 12.8% of households in the US are food insecure. Of those, ⅔ have children within the household. While staggering, this has been on the rise since 2020.

Healthy People 2030, the national objectives to improve health and well-being in the next decade, specifically addresses food insecurity. In the summary, food insecurity is identified as being linked to difficulty in school and negative health outcomes in adulthood. 

As athletic trainers, we are often on the front lines in this public health issue and must be prepared to have conversations, provide resources, and advocate for others. Below are some tips for these three areas.

What if someone tells me they are food insecure?

  1. Listen with an empathetic ear, now is not a time for intrusive questions or pity.
  2. Validate their feelings and concerns.
  3. Remember your duty to maintain confidentiality.
  4. Provide a list of resources (and have this list compiled before it’s needed!).

What can I look for? 

Sometimes our patients may not self-identify and we need to be aware of signs to watch for. 

  1. Sudden changes in body appearance: Although we may think about weight loss first, consider that weight gain can occur from access to less nutritious, but calorie-dense foods. Also be on the lookout for dark, sunken eyes, lack of energy, and decreased athletic performance.
  2. Shifts in mood or behavior: Lack of food can alter attention span, concentration, and classroom behavior. While it may look like a child is acting out, it may be due to hunger.
  3. Taking more food than needed for one meal: If an athlete is concerned for later meals, they may try hoarding food to have available. 
  4. Changes in home environment: If a parent’s employment situation or housing changes, access to food may be disrupted.

What are some places that I should look for resources?

Community Level

There are often many options for community-based food resources. Check for community fridges, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other outreach-based opportunities. Often, churches and community centers provide help for those in-need. Additionally, you can encourage people to look into whether they qualify for  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

Collegiate Level

23% of undergraduates and 12% of graduate students face food insecurity. 

Surrounding school breaks, students may worry about leaving school where they have access to a meal plan. For these individuals, we may need to help educate them on how to search for resources at home. Additionally, some Athletics Department budgets may include funding for a registered dietician to help educate student athletes or for healthy snacks to be provided for those in-need. For athletes who need the additional nutritional caloric intake, the NCAA only recently allowed all levels of athletics to be given food and snacks for more than game day and travel trips. While helpful, this is not failsafe and additional supports may be necessary.

At Temple University, we have a Cherry Pantry and a Social Services Annex to help students in-need. The Cherry Pantry is a no-questions asked way for students to gain access to food. The Social Services Annex was created and run by the School of Social Work and is dedicated to empowering students in need of a number of support services, including access to food. Details for both are contained in all syllabi so that students have information at their fingertips, without having to ask. Both of these resources are aligned with Temple’s core values and are vital to allowing students to take care of their basic needs for a better classroom experience.

Secondary School Level

There may be specific resources for both students and families. Work with your school nurse and counselors to collate information on free and reduced lunch options and how to apply (if needed). You can also check to see if the school district offers assistance for children when the school is on break. In some places, students are given SNAP cards, vouchers, or food boxes for when school is not in session. 

How can I help advocate?

We should advocate for resources at the federal, state, community, and school levels. We might consider creating or assisting with food drives, educational sessions, or community garden initiatives. When speaking with administration, teams, parents, and boosters, discuss the needs of your patient population and raise awareness.

Food insecurity is a very real issue for many of our patients. Even if we work in affluent areas, food insecurity exists.  As athletic trainers, we owe it to our patients to consider their whole self when they are in our care. Because of our proximity to our patients and the community, athletic trainers are uniquely suited to identify and address this public health issue.

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