KUNM

When Medical Costs Cut Into Food Money

Feb 22, 2016

Hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans don’t have enough food to eat. A lot of those people also have expensive medical conditions that can make buying food even harder.

A new program is trying to bridge that gap, by getting healthy food to people suffering from chronic health problems.

Maria Vera is a retired educational assistant with Albuquerque Public Schools. She’s also one of a few hundred people who have been referred to Roadrunner Food Bank’s new Healthy Foods Center by a doctor, as a way for her to get a weekly supply of fruits, vegetables and other groceries that are out of her price range.

“For me it’s very important because I’m low income," she said. "It’s very hard to get food. I either buy all the medicine I need for my illness or I buy food."

Pay for medicine or pay for food. That’s a predicament nobody would want to be in, but one that’s surprisingly common in New Mexico. In Vera’s case, she has to pay for medication to treat her osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and depression—and all those medical costs can add up fast. When they do, people like Vera, who earn low or fixed incomes, can end up without enough money to buy groceries. 

"That’s the reality these days," Vera said. "t’s extremely difficult, we’re in a difficult situation right now."

"We recognize there’s a strong linkage between health and hunger," said Alissa Barnes, Director of Community Initiatives for Roadrunner Food Bank, which supplies food pantries across the state. "We know the people standing in our lines also have medical issues."

Barnes said 60 percent of their shoppers have medical conditions that cut into food costs.

"If you are chronically hungry, you don’t have the physical strength to fight off your chronic illness, or even a small illness," she said.

Here’s how the program works: When a participating doctor realizes that medical expenses might be cutting into a patient’s food money, and that a certain kind of food could help their medical condition, the doctor can give the patient a voucher for groceries at the Healthy Foods Center.

So far about 300 households have cashed in doctors’ vouchers here. But visit any other food pantry in New Mexico, and you’ll find a very different selection—mostly processed foods that are high in sugars and fats and low in vitamins and minerals.

That means the kind of groceries available at the Healthy Foods Center are out of reach for a lot of New Mexicans.

"New Mexico has very high rates of hunger, especially childhood hunger. Frankly the core problem is about poverty," said Janet Page-Reeves, a researcher at UNM’s Office for Community Health. "A lot of what we expect poor people to live like is not reasonable in the way that you would want to live or that I would want to live."

Almost one in five people in New Mexico don’t have enough food to live a healthy life, and Page Reeves says to really address numbers that high, we need to pay more attention to the root cause of hunger.

"A lot of people who visit the food banks are working, but they can’t make a living wage so they can’t afford the cost of a reasonable existence," she said.

Page-Reeves says the problem isn’t just access to healthy foods at food pantries. After all, hunger is more than just the feeling of being hungry—it’s a complex social and political problem that causes deep-seated emotional trauma. Fixing that will take a lot more than updating the food bank system.

But, she says, any effort helps. And more people might have access to the kind of groceries at the Health Foods Center soon. Representatives at Roadrunner say if things go well at this location, they’ll be working to duplicate this model in food banks around New Mexico.

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KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Con Alma Health Foundation. Find more online at publichealthnm.org.