Clear View – Health Insecurity

5-2-1-0: get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day, at least one hour of physical activity a day and zero sugary drinks.

When I was much younger and a poor college student and then poor graduate student the thing that occupied my mind most, along with grades and debt and friends, was hunger, that pain in your stomach from not eating enough food. It was with me constantly. I paid my own way through school with summer jobs and borrowed to cover the rest of my tuition and rent expenses but this didn’t leave much left to buy food. During school it was hard to get a job. I ate whatever I could get my hands on, including some pretty gross things, just to stop the pain. It’s called food insecurity. I had never heard of a food pantry and living off campus I wasn’t socially connected. I lost a lot of weight and felt horrible, physically and mentally. I survived because I knew there was light ahead; employability. Even so the experience taught me to appreciate every mouthful, even to this day.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a forum with my friend, Hollie Legee of the Head Start Program. The forum was titled “Food is Medicine”. When I found out the focus was on food insecurity I wondered if this was going to be a food pantry meeting. It wasn’t. The focus was why food insecurity exists and what is its impact.

It turns out the causes and the impacts are linked. Food and nutrition and access to sufficient quantities are very complex issues, but as you might imagine a leading component is how much money you have. Low income people are forced into spending trade-offs and coping strategies. One might cut back on food or even medicine to pay for heating oil, or gas to get to work, or clothes for the kids. The purchased food ends up being the low cost, filling and low nutrient foods, enough to stop the pain but the kind that leads to chronic diseases. This leads to poor physical and mental health. The stress alone can be debilitating, especially without the support of a strong social network. This leads to increased healthcare costs and makes it harder to keep one’s job, let alone get a higher paying one, which leads to more spending trade-offs and coping mechanisms, which leads to poorer health, and on and on.

There are some resources to help some dig out of this viscous cycle, but often the people caught in the cycle are least likely to be aware of them, or have the ability to get to them, or possess the knowledge or self confidence to use them, or enjoy the social network to support them. And often the only thing keeping hungry people from accessing helpful resources is the negative stigma that goes along with using those resources.

The cycle could be broken anywhere: a livable wage, access to a healthy food system, access to affordable health care. Some of these may require political will, but we can also increase availability and access to supporting resources, build knowledge and self confidence, and reduce isolation and increase healthy social connections. There may always be periods that we pass through where we experience hunger but everyone should be able to see a light ahead.

5-2-1-0, appreciate every nutritious mouthful!


Carl Costanzi, Ph.D. is the 5210 Let’s Go! Program Coordinator for Western Maine Health. You can connect with him at the Healthy Oxford Hills building, at 890-6102 or at


Reprinted with permission from the Advertiser Democrat