As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, New Mexico’s nonprofit, health care and policy leaders are working to find legislative solutions to address hunger and food insecurity across the state.
Despite New Mexico’s rich agricultural heritage, too many people lack access to nutritious food. Approximately 30% of counties in New Mexico are considered “food deserts,” where individuals lack access to a full-service grocery store within 10 miles of their home. Many counties also lack access to such supplemental resources as food banks, food pantries and Meals on Wheels. It is likely the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated these challenges.
A 2020 survey conducted by New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico found nearly one-third of New Mexicans surveyed had experienced food insecurity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to NMSU lead researcher Stephanie Rogus, Ph.D., RDN, respondents reported job and income disruptions, limited availability of some grocery items, lack of emergency food services and fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus as factors in their food insecurity.
However, these food insecurity trends point to a deeply concerning and often-overlooked problem facing New Mexico: malnutrition.
Malnutrition is defined as unbalanced nutrition, due to undernutrition or overnutrition. Undernutrition occurs when an individual does not consume adequate nutrients; overnutrition can result from eating excess calories, yet experiencing vitamin and mineral deficiencies because those calories did not come from such nutritious foods as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds or whole grains. Malnutrition can affect individuals of any age, weight or race and increases the risk of such chronic conditions as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Malnutrition is especially pronounced among minority populations, hospitalized individuals and the elderly.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist whose career has been focused on working with the geriatric population, I have witnessed how malnutrition, along with dehydration, contributes to a decline in mental and cognitive functions among senior New Mexicans, causing fatigue, confusion, anxiety and depression, as well as a higher risk of falls and death.
Malnutrition also leads to higher health care expenses, costing the state of New Mexico $92.5 million each year due to worsened disease complications, longer hospital stays and repeated hospital readmissions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the policy and systemic challenges of addressing the interconnected problems of food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and overall health. Even with increased emergency food aid during the pandemic and the recent expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more must be done.
Health care professionals must be diligent in screening for malnutrition, and recognize patient warning signs. Policymakers must work to ensure that malnourished patients have access to medical nutrition therapy and other interventional steps needed to improve health. But you do not have to be a health care professional or policymaker to have an impact.
All New Mexicans can participate in malnutrition prevention strategies, such as sharing a meal or offering to pick up nutritious grocery items for elderly relatives, friends and neighbors. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared Oct. 4-8 “Malnutrition Awareness Week.” It’s a good reminder that all New Mexicans can be part of a solution to defeat malnutrition and improve the quality of life for all.