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Hello Idaho: How food insecurity, coronavirus, and mental health go hand-in-hand

“If the pandemic were to continue, we would be possibly looking at one in six Idahoans facing hunger, and that would include one in four of our children.”

BOISE, Idaho — Food insecurity is a term coined by the USDA, referencing the nationwide problem of people and families not getting adequate nutrition to live healthy, active lifestyles.

“It could mean that a person is skipping meals or it could mean that they are going without meals for a longer time period,” Idaho Food Bank Chief Development Officer Morgan Wilson said. “Overall, it just means they don’t have the food they need to be healthy.”

Wilson said prior to the pandemic, the number of people who weren't getting enough to eat was going down. The numbers had fallen below where they were during the Great Recession, she added.

“About one in nine people were experiencing hunger. To put that into a number for you, that’s about 189,000 people,” she said. “Unfortunately, that did include one in eight of our kids as well, so about 98,000 of our kids were experiencing hunger.”

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The coronavirus pandemic and the financial hardship it has brought to many Idahoans has sent those numbers surging again.

Wilson said COVID-19 is having a noticeable impact on hunger in the Gem State, after looking at Feeding America’s annual Map the Meal Gap report.

“These [numbers] are based on 11.5% unemployment, and luckily here in Idaho we are not at that level, which is wonderful for our families and for our whole state,” Wilson said. “But if the pandemic were to continue and we were to reach those levels, we would possibly be looking at one in six Idahoans facing hunger, and that would include one in four of our children.”

Dr. Dennis Woody, a psychologist with Optum Idaho, said hunger has a correlation with developmental issues in kids.

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“From a developmental motor standpoint - strength, endurance, all kinds of physical and mental processes are negatively impacted,” Woody said. “That includes the child’s emotional status.”

Woody added that children and adults struggle with feelings of shame and isolation when they don’t know where their next meal will come from.

The Idaho Food Bank is doing its part to combat hunger, with two upcoming programs aimed at combating food insecurity in children.

“We have our backpack program as well as our school pantry program, both will be in place in this year,” Wilson said. “We will work with the schools one-on-one to understand what will work best for them and their families as we come back to this school time in a different climate.”

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Woody stressed that all Idahoans can help in the fight against food insecurity by checking on their neighbors.

“Neighbors who are aware should reach out and don’t hesitate to make overtures to folks if you really think they’re in a situation,” he said. “That feeling of isolation is something that compounds what is very clearly mood disorders and anxiety disorders for folks who really do have food insecurity issues.”

If you know somebody struggling with food insecurity neighbor to the Idaho Foodbank’s food assistance locator to find their next meal.

Anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts is encouraged to call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline 208-398-4357.

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