Alex Ashbrook, director of Special Projects and Initiatives at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), recently spoke at the World Congress 10th Annual Medicaid Managed Care Summit on the issue of food insecurity as a social determinant of health. Below is an edited transcript of her presentation.

More than 42 million Americans live in households that struggle to put food on the table. This means about 1 in 8 Americans, including 1 in 6 children, lives in a food-insecure household.

Food insecurity is associated with some of the most common and costly health problems in the U.S., including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and depression. Because of limited financial resources, individuals in food-insecure households — especially the elderly — are more likely to have to choose between paying for food or medicine, to postpone medical care, and to forgo food needed for special medical diets.

Not surprisingly, a recent study found that household food insecurity was not only a strong predictor of higher health care utilization, but also of increased health care costs. The direct and indirect health-related costs of hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. were estimated to be a staggering $160 billion in 2014.

Health care providers can address food insecurity, a key social determinant of health, in the three following ways:

Connect patients to federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and school meals.

Research shows that the federal nutrition programs play a critical role in alleviating poverty and food insecurity and in improving dietary intake, weight outcomes, and health, especially among low-income children.

In addition to the health benefits of these programs, they are available right here, right now, in every corner of the country. There is no need to find a programmatic funding source or worry about participation quotas, because SNAP, school meals and other key nutrition programs are entitlement programs – the main exceptions are the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and senior nutrition programs. The federal nutrition programs offer a rare opportunity to connect individuals and families to free, and often much-needed, sources of nutrition.

Learn from a growing number of health care groups addressing food insecurity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) teamed up with FRAC for a toolkit to help health care providers screen for food insecurity in children and connect patients with federal nutrition programs. In June, FRAC and AARP Foundation will release a full online course, “Treating Food Insecurity Among Older Adults,” with the same goals for health care providers serving adults 50 years of age and older.

Additionally, many hospitals serve as summer meals sites in order to more effectively and directly provide nutrition solutions against hunger. Organizations, such as Fresh Advantage® help make this possible.

Develop partnerships and join coalitions.

The Hunger Vital Sign™ community of practice, co-convened by FRAC and Children’s Health Watch, is a practice group that champions effective interventions to address food insecurity at practice and policy levels. Health care providers can join by emailing Alex Ashbrook.

There is also the Root Cause Coalition, a national, member-driven, nonprofit organization, dedicated to addressing the root causes of health disparities by focusing on food insecurity and other social determinants of health that contribute to preventable chronic health conditions.

You can also partner with state anti-hunger groups and food banks — these groups stand ready to connect individuals and families with federal nutrition programs and the resources they need to live a healthy life.

Learn more about screening for food insecurity in FRAC and AAP’s Addressing Food Insecurity: A Toolkit for Pediatricians.

FRAC On the Move is a series in which we follow our policy and program experts as they connect with advocates across the country to explore strategies and develop solutions to end hunger. Follow #FRACOnTheMove on Twitter for our latest whereabouts.