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The power of food security on mental health: Can this be one of the missing puzzle pieces to solve our silent pandemic?

Food is one of the fundamental blocks for our survival and has a significant impact on our mental and physical health. An alarming 38 million Americans live in food-insecure households.

We have spent the last two years of our lives navigating the Covid-19 pandemic and through this, we have acknowledged the silent pandemic that has been existent throughout our lives: the mental health crisis in America. As per Mental Health America, 1 in 5 Americans face mental health concerns (46% of Americans), 8.4 % of US adults struggle with depression, and 31.6% of US adults experience lifetime anxiety. These numbers reflect our overall health and the underlying factors that accelerate these numbers.

One of the key contributing factors to our silent pandemic is the lack of access to nutritious food at an affordable and sustainable rate. Food insecurity is a significant concern as per USDA. An alarming 38 million Americans live in food-insecure households; 9.4 million adults live in household that have very low food security, and 6.1 million children lived in food-insecure households. Food is one of the fundamental blocks for our survival and has a significant impact on our mental and physical health.

Poor mental health is one of the debilitating consequences of food insecurity which involves depression, anxiety, shame, and acute psychological stress, as discovered in a study conducted to analyze the relationship between food insecurity and poor mental health. The correlation between access to fewer fruits and vegetables was directly proportional to poor mental health; this could be due to less nutrition one derives from food, less access to a variety of fruits and vegetables, or having difficulty navigating programs due to digital barriers and other factors such as financial, environmental and educational reasons contribute to this.

The lack of access to healthy food creates an immense amount of psychological stress, which leads to heightened inflammation in one’s body, catapulting them to poor mental and physical health conditions. To address this issue at the intersection of empathy, impact, and innovation, we would have to create an impact model where every zip code has access to healthy produce through community gardens or local stores, and nutritional education could be embedded in schools and medical schools for physicians can incorporate such factors at the very beginning while seeing patients. Regulations around products that contain unhealthy ingredients would have to be tightened, and reading nutritional labels should be encouraged to become simpler and nature-based. The cost of organic healthy foods would need to be driven down to increase accessibility and affordability. While many factors contribute to one’s poor mental health, we are at a time where we need to address each foundational block with intent and sustainable strategy to reduce the ripple effect of the silent pandemic by giving voice to one of its critical sources food insecurity.

One of the largest counties moving the needle in this field is Los Angeles County, a place where one in 10 people struggle with food insecurity. The county has created a Food Equity Round table, to which I belong and which is a coalition of county officials and LA area philanthropic organizations dedicated to promote food justice and addressing food inequities.

As Gary Gero, Chief Sustainability Officer of LA County, stated:

“We recognize the truth in the African saying that if you want to go fast, then go alone, but if you want to go far, then you must go together.”

Photo: Nes, Getty Images

Smriti Kirubanandan is a Growth and Strategic Partnerships Executive. Passionate about driving growth across all industries in North America, she specializes in creating high-impact strategic partnerships that transcend industry verticals. As a trusted leader, she fosters executive relationships and cultivates partnerships at the convergence of emerging technology, innovation, and empathy. She integrates Go-to-Market (GTM) strategies, technology, and innovative solutions to elevate growth trajectories and expand market presence. She also spearheads brand development, thought leadership, and market research.

Smriti was selected as a Young Global Leader 2023 by the World Economic Forum, a member of the Young Leaders Circle at the Milken Institute, and the Founder of the HLTH Forward Podcast. This award-winning media platform hosts healthcare leaders, policymakers, and artists to discuss the challenges in the system and what we could do collectively to move healthcare forward.

An empathetic and innovative strategic policy advisor has helped organizations globally build the capacity to empower people to engage in wellness programs and is responsible for educating small farmers in Africa to lift them out of poverty to improve food & and nutrition insecurity, impacting 2 million people annually. In 2022, Smriti was appointed to serve the Los Angeles County food equity round table as a Nutrition and policy Advisor to design and strategize programs to address food insecurity by educating and improving access and affordability to nutritious food and appointed to the Board at Akshaya Patra Foundation, World's most prominent NGO feeding 2 million kids/day. Smriti has shared her thought leadership across many national forums.

She gained her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Engineering focussed on Robotics (BSCEN), followed by her Masters in Engineering Management (MSEM) from USC and Masters in Public Health (MPH) from UCLA. She is also a certified Raw Vegan Chef and Nutritionist. She serves the World Food Bank and Nourish CA board and is in a Fellowship at the American College of Healthcare Executives.

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