Visualizing State and County Healthcare Costs of Food Insecurity

by Haley Swartz Research Communications Specialist, Feeding America

Families who experience food insecurity often face multiple hardships that exacerbate the challenges to maintaining good health, a process known as the cycle of food insecurity and chronic disease. Reduced access to nutritious foods increases the risk of developing chronic diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension – conditions that can be stressful to manage as well as costly. While the high healthcare costs associated with food insecurity have been well-documented at the national level, those costs are subject to vary across the country, given local differences in food insecurity prevalence, healthcare service pricing, and intensity of healthcare use.

To better understand this variation, Feeding America partnered with research experts who recently authored a study using data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study and other nationally-representative data sets to estimate the additional healthcare costs associated with food insecurity at the national, state and local levels. Feeding America has created an interactive data visualization, along with an FAQ document and a companion brief to support exploration of the data.

Nationally, food-insecure households in the U.S. faced additional healthcare costs totaling $52.9 billion in 2016. These additional costs include all direct healthcare-generated costs, like clinic visits, hospitalizations, and prescription medications. Moving to the state level, California has the highest overall healthcare cost associated with food insecurity at $7.2 billion, though total cost is driven in large part by total state population. When considering cost per capita, Mississippi ranks highest at $243, and when it comes to cost per food-insecure adult, New Jersey tops the list at $2,083. Individually, average healthcare costs for food-insecure adults were $1,834 higher than for food-secure adults. The visualization also displays total additional healthcare costs at the state and county level and how they would change in response to changes in the food insecurity rate.

Using local data can be an effective strategy to help advocates and practitioners interrupt the cycle of food insecurity and chronic disease. In this case, the geographic variation in the additional healthcare costs associated with food insecurity can inform where and how scarce resources are directed. It also highlights an opportunity for partnership, including between food banks and healthcare partners, to prioritize policies and investments in the hunger safety net that can help to reduce rising healthcare costs while improving health outcomes among food-insecure families.

To learn more about Feeding America’s research, visit FeedingAmerica.org/Research.

Haley Swartz is a Research Communications Specialist at Feeding America. Previously, she was the Linda Golodner Food and Nutrition Policy Fellow at the National Consumers League and a Research Program Coordinator in the Global Food Ethics and Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She has a Master of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts, both from the University of Virginia.

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