Resource Center launches food insecurity project, addressing needs of HIV-positive clients
In 2013, 14.3 percent of households in the United States — that’s about 17.5 million households, or 1 in 7 — were “food insecure,” according to the World Hunger Education Service. That means, that in 1 in 7 households, people spent at least part of their lives wondering where their next meal would come from.
Throw in the extra dimension of dealing with a chronic illness, such as HIV/AIDS, and the statistics go up.
“Food insecurity” is defined as an individual not having consistent access to affordable, adequate and healthy food. Project FEED, a new Resource Center project, aims to rectify that issue among the center’s most vulnerable HIV-positive clients.
FEED is an acronym for “Food, Education, Empowerment Dallas,” and the program is a collaboration between Resource Center’s existing nutritional programs and Neha Gaddam, a UT-Southwestern medical student and Albert Schweitzer Fellow.
(Currently 10 fellows are working with organizations across the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Gaddam is the only one working directly with HIV-positive individuals.)
Originally from The Woodlands, the second-year medical student wanted to make a difference outside of medical school. As part of the application for the national fellowship, applicants must submit a proposal for a 200-hour volunteer project that helps vulnerable people live healthier lives and create healthier communities.
The competitive fellowship attracted Gaddam because of its entrepreneurial approach and because it offered the opportunity to build a program “from the ground up.”
After researching area agencies with nutrition programs, she thought the Resource Center would be a good fit. She asked friends about it – “They only had good things to say” – and immediately contacted Jennifer Hurn, Resource Center’s client service manager who oversees the project.
The center was already looking to expand it outreach to HIV-positive clients. And Hurn said food insecurity had become one of her pet issues.
After submitting the proposal and winning the fellowship, Gaddam joined forced with Hurn and the duo went to work.
Building the program
FEED’s goal aligns with the fellowship’s outcomes: to increase access to healthy and nutritional food opportunities for the center’s HIV-positive clients. A three-page action plan provided by Hurn details just how much work needs to be done to begin the program.
The first part involved research. A lot of research.
Currently, there are few published studies exploring food insecurity among HIV-positive individuals, and “A lot of the [available] research explores the impact of food insecurity on HIV-positive individuals internationally,” Gaddam said.
But based on the few domestic studies available, it is an issue in the United States.
According to research conducted by the University of California-San Francisco’s AIDS Research Institute, high rates of international food insecurity negatively impact antiretroviral treatment outcomes.
But, the report notes, “food insecurity is present in half of the HIV-positive urban poor in San Francisco, one of the best resourced settings for HIV-positive individuals in the United States, and is associated with incomplete viral suppression.”
Even with access to quality services and low-cost medication, HIV-positive individuals are still plagued with a lack of healthy nutritional options, which can weaken the impact of the medications they take to treat HIV/AIDS. Access to healthy food and maintaining a healthy diet not only helps contain an individual’s viral load, it is also a preventive measure for the community as a whole.
The study concludes HIV service providers must integrate access to healthy food in programs serving key populations.
Hurn said an estimated 50 percent of HIV-positive people experience food insecurity. Those statistics match the experiences of the center’s clients.
Hurn culls her data from a needs and outcomes assessment all clients are required to fill out. Two questions on the assessment address food insecurity. And responses to those questions reveal an overwhelming lack of access to affordable food.
Factors affecting lack of access includes financial barriers and a lack of adequate transportation.
Food insecurity is not just about healthy eating, however. To understand food insecurity one must also look at the negative social determinants. In short, negative social determinants have dangerous outcomes.
“If someone offers a burger to someone who hasn’t eaten in two days in exchange for unprotected sex,” Hurn said, “the likelihood the recipient may contract HIV goes up.”
Obesity is another determinant. Limited access to healthy food means many people eat high-fat, high-sugar and low-protein foods, like potato chips, to temporarily satisfy their appetite.
Stigma against those with HIV also contributes to food insecurity.
Last year, the center’s food pantry and hot meals program served 1,900 clients. By Hurn’s estimate, that means 31,000 pantry visits and 18,000 hot meals.
“We have clients who say our hot meals are the only reason they get out of bed,” she said.
For many clients, the safe environment at the center is all they have going for them. By providing a well-balanced meal in a safe environment, the center is helping clients control their viral load and thus helping them live healthier lives.
Part of the program’s goal is to provide educational workshops at the center and elsewhere in the community. Ideally the first workshops will occur when hot meals are served. They will look at “the little things you miss on nutrition labels and [that] you may not understand,” Gaddam said.
Other workshops will address managing caloric intake on a minimum budget.
Participants will also learn how to enjoy not just eating, but cooking, too. Using the Resource Center’s kitchen space, guest chefs will provide practical demonstrations.
“We want clients to learn how to create a meal using what’s in the pantry,” Gaddam said.
Workshops should begin within the month.
The project will not just benefit clients, but the Resource Center, too.
“We’re pulling together community resources not already connected to our nutrition program to help sustain a healthy lifestyle for our clients,” Hurn said. “We’re also hoping to strengthen our partnership with UT-Southwestern’s Clinical Nutrition Department.”
Hurn said she is grateful for Gaddam and the Schweitzer Foundation.
“We’re happy to make this connection because it gives academic support and advice to stay ahead of the latest trends and best-practice strategies,” Hurn said. “It’ll take our pantry and hot meal services to the next level by enhancing our ability to provide for our clients.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 21, 2015.