Food insecurity is a real problem in Central Ohio, but there are ways to combat it

People in Columbus love to talk about food. I, in particular, will take any chance to shout out Smoked on High Barbeque in the Brewery District or Layla's Kitchen on Cleveland Avenue. As the city has grown, it has started to build a foodie reputation, with new restaurants opening up every week and cuisines ranging from bar food to Cajun to Nepalese.

Despite the range of food options, Columbus is also a city where many still go hungry. Feeding America, a nonprofit with more than 200 food banks in its nationwide network, estimates that 17 percent of Franklin County residents are food insecure, meaning that more than one in six lack regular access to nutritious foods. That puts Franklin County in the top 10 counties in Ohio for food insecurity prevalence and only behind Cuyahoga County in total number of estimated food-insecure individuals.

Food insecurity is a serious public health problem. Not having access to nutritious foods is associated with higher prevalence of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, arthritis and kidney disease. In addition, food insecurity leads to harmful budget-stretching practices such as under-using medication, postponing medical care, diluting of infant formula and reducing usage of basic necessities such as housing, utilities and transportation.

Food access issues have been shown to be especially hard on kids. Research suggests that food insecurity leads to consumption of low-cost but low-nutrient-dense foods, as well as caregiver depression and anxiety. This can lead to increased hospitalizations, poor health and developmental risk and behavior problems like aggression, anxiety and depression.

Columbus and Franklin County have tools at their disposal to combat food insecurity. Feeding America estimates that the cost of covering the meal gap for the 200,000-plus food-insecure citizens of Franklin County would cost more than $100 million per year. While this is a lot of money on the scale of the city or county, targeted cash or food coupon payments similar to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could effectively reduce the burden of food insecurity in the county.

Another option would be to provide supplemental funds to Central Ohio SNAP-Ed, an evidence-based program that teaches those eligible for federal food assistance about good nutrition and how to make their food dollars stretch further. SNAP-Ed pulls one person out of food insecurity for every $700 spent, making it an extremely cost-effective tool for fighting food insecurity.

The city and county have their work cut out for them, but they have an obligation to do everything they can to reduce the prevalence of hunger in a city where so many can eat so well.