Because cancer exacerbates food insecurity, the community can help

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“Until you lose hair, hunch over the toilet, experience daily pain, wake up feeling like you don’t want to do anything or talk to anyone…without that experience, most people can’t relate,” says one local. recently said cancer.

The devastation of a cancer diagnosis is all too familiar to many, causing not only emotional turmoil but also a disruption to economic stability. In North Carolina, this is an unfortunate reality for nearly 67,000 people, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2020, nearly 2,254 people in Forsyth County were expected to be diagnosed by the North Carolina Central Cancer Registry. “Most people don’t understand the burden,” says Walid, a Winston-Salem resident who was diagnosed with cancer last year.

We are employees of Wake Forest University School of Medicine and research fellows at the Spatial Justice Studio in Winston-Salem. The studio is an interinstitutional and interdisciplinary entity in the Center for Design and Innovation that brings together educators, students and the community to develop meaningful solutions to spatial (in)justice issues. We are working on an initiative to define the challenges faced by people with cancer who are also food insecure, and to find community solutions to address those challenges.

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One of the sometimes overlooked burdens faced by cancer patients is food insecurity – reduced access to high quality, variety or nutritional food. Food insecurity is a reality for about 1 in 6 Forsyth County residents.

It is essential to view disease through a lens of social determinants, which often exacerbate health problems.

A cancer diagnosis significantly increases the burden of food insecurity. Cancer patients are forced to reallocate resources to cover the costs of medical care and time off. This shift in resources creates deficits in essential areas, often including the food budget. Those without additional resources must choose between cutting their food budget or overextending to make ends meet. “I had to go back to work because my kids needed things and the disability wasn’t coming through,” said Walid, talking about the numbness in his feet caused by working two jobs while undergoing care.

Carla, a member of the local community battling cancer, recently asked, “Are there food banks or food pantries that deliver?” This question was important to Carla because her mother, who has been helping her since December, has to return to Pennsylvania in a month. Prior to her cancer diagnosis in July 2022, Carla worked full time. Now she can’t work at all. She is grateful for the support she received from Cancer Services to “get a foothold” and gain stability as she signed up for services. Now she supplements her food budget with food stamps, but still occasionally worries that she will run out of food, even rationing food towards the end of the month.

According to the 2018 Food Research and Action Center, Forsyth County has one of the highest food problems in the country. Forsyth has 21 food deserts, or areas with limited access to a grocery store or supermarket. Predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhoods may have fewer full-service grocery stores than predominantly White and non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Convenience stores usually have higher food prices, lower quality food, and less variety of food than supermarkets or grocery stores.

Several nonprofits are trying to mitigate the impact of food insecurity in Forsyth County, including Cancer Services, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, Positive Wellness Alliance, Clemmons Food Pantry, Community Care Center, and HOPE (Help Our People Eat) of Winston – Salem. For individuals who do not have access to food locally, DoorDash has a new initiative that allows the delivery of food boxes at a subsidized rate. The Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Downtown Health Plaza supports the food access needs of pediatric patients by referring patients to the federal nutrition programs and by providing non-perishable bags of food and products with the help of Campus Kitchen, HOPE, Second Harvest Food Bank and the Forsyth Backpack program. These are just some of the resources available locally.

As nonprofits and other organizations broadly seek to serve the needs of community members, it is important to consider the unique needs of underserved individuals, particularly the medically vulnerable. There should be a dedicated effort both to assess nutritional needs and to connect community members with cancer with community resources. As Carla noted, “Just because the help is there doesn’t mean I can reach the help.”

For more information about the initiative, go to….

Because cancer exacerbates food insecurity, the community can help

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