05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health Care and America's Hungry

While debate continues over the direction of health care reform, I encourage you to keep in mind the low-income men, women and families who regularly confront stark realities about their own medical costs. As President and CEO of Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization, I'm surrounded by passionate and talented people who work diligently to provide food to more than 37 million Americans each year. Our network of food banks serves every community in the United States, providing meals to people facing difficult times, so that they have the fuel not just to survive, but thrive.

But even with full plates, people struggling with limited incomes face an array of other challenges. Feeding America is primarily focused on providing healthy, nutritious food, but we also encourage advancements in the other systems on which on our clients rely. The nation's health care system is one such system, and its current structure leads many low-income people to make heartbreaking choices that no one in this great nation should face.

Hunger in America 2010, our quadrennial comprehensive study of domestic hunger, sheds some light on the issue. These data show that among the people we serve:

  • More than 35 percent of adult clients report having to choose between health care and food in the past year.
  • There has been a 60 percent increase, over four years, in the number of adult clients who report that they or another household member has no health insurance.
  • Almost half of our adult clients report that they or a household member has unpaid medical bills.
  • One in three adult clients report that someone in their household is in "poor health."
  • One in 10 adult clients report that they have been refused medical care in the past year because they couldn't afford it.

In our travels across the country to meet the people we serve, we've spoken to families whose lives were sent into a financial spiral in the wake of unanticipated medical problems. Many of these individuals have allowed us to share their stories on our website,, so that we can shed light on the often invisible problem of hunger in America.

For example: There's Heaven, Michael, and their two children, a loving family in Montana that saw their financial stability crumble after Michael suffered a debilitating back injury; Shirley, a senior citizen in New Jersey, who regularly has to choose between paying for food or buying the medicine that helps her heart condition; and there's Jason in Colorado, whose battle with Multiple Sclerosis took him out of a successful career in the technology sector and left him unemployed.

Fortunately, all of these people augment the food they can afford to buy with free food from agencies supported by the Feeding America network. But their insurmountable medical costs still stand in the way of truly abundant, hopeful lives.

Whatever your opinions are regarding the specifics of health care reform, these data and anecdotes show that low-income Americans are currently facing a crushing set of circumstances and difficult choices. Though the Feeding America network is there to provide food and hope, progress needs to be made in the other systems that affect the lives of people like Heaven, Michael, Shirley, and Jason.