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The Healing Power of Food: Addressing Food Insecurity Among Cancer Patients

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Prior to the pandemic, a national restaurant chain sent me an email with the subject line “Your next meal is just one click away.” This was supposed to remind all rewards members of the ease of online ordering, but instead, it made me pause. Just one click away? It should be that easy for everyone. But it isn’t.

Sadly, food is a source of stress and uncertainty for far too many. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” According to Feeding America, food insecurity exists in every county in America, and while it is most prevalent in low-income areas, this social determinant of health impacts individuals and families on either side of the poverty line.

Only adding to the prevalence of food insecurity, about 23.5 million urban and rural Americans live in food deserts, or areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are considered part of a healthy diet. But as evidence shows that access to food is more than a geographic problem, it is increasingly understood that millions live under food apartheid, which accounts for the systemic barriers that shape access to food, such as affordable housing, stagnant wages, and transportation.

When you add cancer to the mix, food insecurity can significantly impact a patient’s ability to endure treatment. Here’s a look at why nutrition is so important for cancer patients and how we can ensure families have access to the healing power of food.

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Food as medicine

Food is our primary source of energy. That’s no secret. And while it’s not always thought of as medicine, it’s consistently our first line of defense.

For cancer patients, a healthy diet can improve their ability to cope with the numerous and varied side effects of treatment. Cancer therapies are designed to destroy cancer cells, usually by inhibiting their ability to grow, divide, and make more cells. In this process, normal cells are also harmed, leading to the long list of side effects, such as fatigue, hair loss, and a suppressed immune system. This is where the power of food comes in.

By delivering the antioxidants and nutrients the body needs for normal cell regeneration, patients can help repair or rebuild the cells that will support their immune system and energy levels. For example, food can prevent body tissue from breaking down and assist with building new tissue. According to the American Cancer Society, it may even help a patient handle higher doses of certain drugs.

There’s no perfect recipe since each patient responds to treatment differently, though one thing is for certain: A diet filled with fruits, vegetables, and a variety of meat or plant-based protein sources will have health-promoting benefits. When a patient has access to a healthy diet, it’s as if they can go into their next treatment with reserves. Just like a runner eats carbohydrates to provide their body with additional fuel before a long run, a cancer patient can pack in extra protection for their bones, muscles, and infection defense for the journey ahead.

Food insecurity as a barrier for cancer patients

Since food plays such an important role in cancer treatment, patients who experience food insecurity will not have the benefits of a healthy diet when enduring radiation or chemotherapy, undergoing surgery, or taking new medications.

With food insecurity as prevalent as it is nationwide, some patients begin cancer treatment with limited access to food. Cancer only makes it worse as new medical expenses compete for the money that used to buy groceries. In other cases, families become food insecure as they lose 50% or more of their household income when a caregiver or patient must stop working to prioritize treatment. This year, many families saw additional income loss after employers closed their doors for the nationwide shutdown.

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Guide to Managing Food Costs During Cancer Treatment

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased the chances of a patient being food insecure. While Feeding America reported the lowest levels of food insecurity since the Great Recession in 2019, the pandemic reversed that progress. Now, nationally, over 54 million individuals, including 18 million children, risk food insecurity this year.

COVID-19 is contributing to food insecurity in the cancer community in more ways than the affordability of food. As much of the country stocked up on groceries in response to the uncertainty of this unprecedented situation, the food left on the shelves had more preservatives and sugar along with lower nutritional values. This didn’t leave much of the healthy, nutritious foods that cancer patients need to boost their weakened immune systems.

On top of limited supplies, the grocery store is now an especially intimidating environment for someone with an immunocompromised child at home. For families where the parent is the patient, the additional strength required to stand in long lines just to enter grocery stores creates more barriers to the food they need. While ordering groceries online eliminates infection risk, the additional costs for delivery and service fees become yet another financial side effect of cancer to manage.

We often hear from families who face these barriers to essential nutritional needs, and alleviating this burden requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach. As we explore new solutions today, for example, we’re considering not only the cost of food but also the full impact of the pandemic on the cancer community.

Partnering to overcome food insecurity for cancer patients

Our Financial Treatment Program can help families manage food-related costs so they are at a lower risk of food insecurity during treatment — and the generosity of our partners in the food sector allows us to do even more.

Meal kit deliveries, for example, check all the right boxes for families facing cancer during the pandemic. Thanks to the generosity of our partners at Splendid Spoon, we are conducting a pilot program with families in New York and Boston to deliver plant-based, ready-to-eat meals right to their door.

B&W Quality Growers and The Farmer’s Hen, on the other hand, contribute to the long-term growth of our mission by raising both awareness and funds. Keep an eye out for B&W’s greens with our logo on the bag, and when you see The Farmer’s Hen eggs in your refrigerated section, know that a portion of every sale throughout the entire year is donated to Family Reach.

B&W greens with Family Reach logo

We are eager to collaborate with new partners in the food sector to address this critical need for our high-risk community. This problem is too large to solve on our own, but together we can do more to ensure that families are able to put nourishing food on the table as they focus on healing.

To learn more about partnering with Family Reach, please reach out to Elizabeth at [email protected]

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Elizabeth Santiago
Partnerships Manager • Family Reach Team

Serving as the bridge between our patients and funders, Elizabeth spends her 9-to-5 writing grants, managing partnerships, and working closely with all of the teams at Family Reach. Off the clock, you’re likely to find her painting, riding her bike to Walden Pond, or making homemade Cheez-Its.

Read more from Elizabeth.

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