More than 13 million children in the U.S., or 1 in 6, live in households where some or all of the family members don’t have enough to eat to support their work, health or learning — not just during the holidays, but year-round. These children are at higher risk for obesity and are likely to get sick more often and be hospitalized more frequently.

How doctors help

One group that is increasingly paying attention to the hunger crisis is pediatricians. They have to, because so many see it every day. Allison Waller, M.D., MPH, a resident at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., recalls the first time she encountered hunger in the exam room: “A young mother said to me, ‘My problem is I don’t have enough food for my children.’ I won’t ever forget that patient.”

Dr. Waller continues, “I realize now that I‘ve been seeing hungry patients all along — the young boy with persistent abdominal pain, the little girl with high blood sugar, the adolescent with depression. They were right before my eyes. I just didn’t know the right questions to ask.”

“I realize now that I‘ve been seeing hungry patients all along … They were right before my eyes. I just didn’t know the right questions to ask.”

A delicate discussion

Knowing what questions to ask is key to helping doctors identify the signs of hunger, especially child hunger. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and has recommended that all pediatricians screen patients for food insecurity.

With some outside help, more pediatricians are going beyond identifying the signs of hunger; they are treating it by prescribing nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Child and Adult Care Food Program, school breakfast and lunch and afterschool and summer meals. Without these programs, childhood hunger in the U.S. would be far, far worse.

In order to connect families to important resources like SNAP or WIC, however, it’s incumbent on our nation’s pediatricians to broach what can be a difficult subject. But by doing so, they can help provide access to nutritious foods and stave off hunger for America’s next generation.