Hidden Hunger Among Medical Students

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Photo by Siegfried Poepperl

While Peter Tatum, MD, former U.S. Air Force captain, was completing his fellowship at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, he, his wife, and their four small children were often dependent on the meager offerings in a nearby food pantry, which sometimes meant sharing a loaf of bread and nothing else.

Medical students are dedicated to caring for the human body, meeting the needs of patients, and protecting the health of those they serve. But a rising number of them are unable to meet their own nutritional needs.

Organizers at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Health Husky Harvest Food Pantry, which provides food for students and staff experiencing food insecurity. (Photo courtesy of University of Connecticut)

Alongside the rigorous demands of pursuing a medical degree, a significant number experience food insecurity at some point during their education, which can endanger their health as well as their learning process. Poor nutrition can exacerbate stress levels, impair cognitive function, and compromise overall well-being, which impacts academic performance and clinical competence.

Medical training, characterized by long hours of study, demanding clinical rotations, and fluctuating schedules, leaves little opportunity for part-time employment to supplement student income. Coupled with the financial burden of high tuition, costly textbooks, and rising living expenses, many medical students are forced to make difficult choices; for some, food takes a back seat to other pressing concerns.

“The hospital pay was just a couple hundred dollars over the technical poverty line for which any benefits are available [and] 80% of my take-home income went to rent,” Tatum said.

In the past few years, a growing body of research has brought some much-needed attention to the issue.

A paper published in Family Medicine, “Assessing Food Insecurity in Medical Students,” found that the occurrence of food insecurity among medical students surveyed at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University is roughly the same as the general population — around 11%. The researchers emphasized that “food insecurity cannot be ignored in the medical student population.”

“Food Security Among Medical Students at a Midwest University,” a study produced by researchers from various Oklahoma university system schools, found an even higher prevalence — nearly 27% of those surveyed at an unnamed Midwestern medical school had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.

Among their findings, Oklahoma researchers noted, “Although the medical community has increasingly recognized food as a social determinant of patient health and wellbeing, little attention has been directed at unmet food needs and its consequences among the next generation of medical professionals.”

Additionally, “The Prevalence of Food Insecurity Among University of Utah Medical Students: Documenting the Need for Supportive Programs,” published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, focused on the rate of food insecurity experienced by medical students at the University of Utah by using the USDA’s Food Security Survey Module and recording student responses.

The results were staggering.— 50.6% experienced food insecurity in the previous 12-month period. A similar survey six years before had found similar rates of food insecurity.