Lessons on eating in a pandemic

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Megan A. Dean, PhD

Though COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, the coronavirus outbreak has drastically changed the way many of us eat. According to one survey from mid-2020, 85% of people in the U.S. “have altered their food habits as a result of the pandemic.”

Image description: Restaurant operating during the COVID 19 pandemic has a sign posted: “Please wait outside until your name is called, or if you received a text message. Thank you!” Image source: thom masat/Unsplash.

While the bare supermarket shelves of early March have been replenished (except for the bucatini shelf, apparently), many are still struggling to get adequate food. An estimated 54 million people in the U.S. now face food insecurity, “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” This is an increase of over 17 million since the start of the pandemic.

Another change is where people eat and with whom. Restrictions on indoor dining and shifts to online work and school mean that many are cooking and eating at home more often than before. Stay-at-home orders, gathering restrictions, and the closure of dining rooms in workplaces and institutions also mean that many are limiting their dining companions to those within their own households. For some, this means eating alone. For example, in summer 2020, 87% of nursing home residents ate most of their meals in their rooms alone, up from 32% prior to the pandemic.

Emotional or stress eating is also on the rise. It may come as no surprise to those of us who have endured 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021 that many are using food as “a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” These are just a few of the ways the pandemic has impacted eating in the U.S., but each offers lessons about some of the ethical challenges we face regarding food and eating.

Who stays hungry?

In the U.S., many of those who face food insecurity are children: 30 million children regularly rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals. But due to pandemic-related school closures, only 15% of eligible kids are now receiving these meals. As Cory Turner notes, many school districts have shifted to a meal pickup plan, but lack of transportation and time off from work mean that some caregivers cannot retrieve meals during scheduled pickup times. While some school districts have made creative efforts to distribute meals in other ways, many children go without.

These logistical challenges echo ongoing issues with the distribution of other goods and services essential to good health. Mitchell Katz argues that the U.S. health care system assumes that patients are middle-class; accessing medical care often requires reliable transportation, time off during working hours, or paid sick leave, which many working-class people simply do not have.

Image description: People wearing gloves and face coverings work to package food into plastic bags for distribution. Image source: Joel Muniz/Unsplash.

Like health care, food assistance is only helpful if it is accessible to those who need it. Emergency food benefits programs like the Pandemic EBT give eligible children’s caregivers much more flexibility, enabling them to purchase groceries on their own schedule. However, only six states and Puerto Rico have renewed this program for the 2020-2021 school year.

The value of eating

Asked to look ahead to 2021, many people said that when it comes to food, they were most excited to once again share meals with family and friends.

This desire for shared dining highlights the fact that eating is a rich source of value that extends far beyond nutrition, pleasure, or ostensible effects on body weight, whatever those New Year’s diet ads try to tell us.

There is social value in sharing a meal with coworkers, friends, or neighbors; cultural value in holiday meals, wedding feasts, funeral receptions, graduation toasts; aesthetic value in enjoying food and drink in the ambiance of a restaurant, café, or bar. Eating with others can also have moral value; it provides opportunities to show respect for others, build moral character, and establish moral community.

Some of this value can be found in eating at home. But for many, foregoing meals with friends, dates, colleagues, and loved ones has impoverished day-to-day life. This is not an argument against public health restrictions on dining; there are good, evidence-based reasons for many of these regulations (though more should be done to support restaurants and food service workers while indoor dining remains high risk). But acknowledging these losses enables us to mitigate them where possible, and where not, at least recognize they are worth mourning.

Eating and self-control

A final lesson can be learned from emotional eating, which is often framed as a lapse in self-control, “giving in” to cravings for unhealthy but comforting foods. I have argued elsewhere against the idea that such “mindless” eating is necessarily bad. Here I’ll highlight one way that pandemic-related increases in emotional eating point to the limited role of self-control in determining how we eat.

Image description: A person is sitting down eating a bowl of popcorn with a remote in their other hand. Their face from their mouth up is out of frame. Image source: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash.

For many, the pandemic has meant the collapse of eating routines and schedules alongside significant changes in physical proximity to food. Instead of having access to food only in the work lunchroom or on scheduled breaks, some people now work all day next to their refrigerators. Parents who would normally spend the school day working, running errands, socializing, or exercising, may spend much of their day in the kitchen preparing food for their kids.

As Quill R. Kukla puts it, our routines, schedules, and social and material surroundings constitute scaffolding for our actions. They constrain and enable what we do. When we are able to exercise self-control or agency, it is often because we have supportive scaffolds in place. So it’s entirely unsurprising that we eat differently when our daily structures of living have changed so radically. Recognizing this can help us avoid unjustly shaming ourselves and others for our eating, and also help us strategize more effectively about how to change that eating, if we so desire. It is important to acknowledge that now—as always—our ability to construct and inhabit supportive scaffolding is limited by work and family obligations, resources, living situations, and the like. And as many of us have learned over the past year, sometimes much of that is out of our direct control.

Megan A. Dean photo

Megan A. Dean, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. She works in feminist bioethics, with a focus on the ethics of eating.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, February 4, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Continue reading “Lessons on eating in a pandemic”

Listen: Social Determinants of Health in Medical Education

No Easy Answers in Bioethics logoNo Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 18

How can social determinants of health be integrated effectively into medical education and clinical practice?

This episode focuses on the topic of social determinants of health, or the social and environmental factors that influence our health and access to resources. Center for Ethics Assistant Director Libby Bogdan-Lovis and Associate Professor Dr. Karen Kelly-Blake speak with College of Human Medicine student Brittany Ajegba, who emphasizes the need for standardization when training physicians on social determinants of health. From medical education to clinical encounters, they provide a variety of perspectives on this increasingly important work.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Each month Center for Ethics faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

We Need Healthier Schools, and Student Activists Are Stepping Up

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Sean A. Valles, PhD

California just passed two laws that advance health in schools in ways that might not seem intuitive: pushing middle school and high school start times to after 8am, and banning school districts from “lunch shaming” that treats students differently based on whether they have unpaid school lunch debt. These laws are part of a collection of diverse efforts to make U.S. schools healthier places. The fact that some of these efforts have been led by students themselves is especially heartening.

Bioethics of school policies
The two new laws in California are worthy of attention in a bioethics blog because U.S. schools are, for many students and in many ways, unhealthy places. Not simply because they are crowded spaces infamous for spreading coughs and colds (and stress). For many students, they are also places of food insecurity, social stigma, or even fear of violence. Those problems also shed light on larger problems in society. Even as a child in Los Angeles, I grasped that the local high school having a metal detector at the door signified that something much bigger had gone horribly wrong in my community. Most student problems have their roots outside the school walls, but we can at least do our best to design schools to contend with the difficult realities of young people’s lives.

There is now compelling evidence that later start times for schools are better for adolescent health than early morning ones. As pointed out in one review of the research, adolescents’ bedtimes seem to be more or less independent of when school starts in the morning, partly due to biological clock rhythms changing during puberty. Students forced to begin school early in the morning suffer all of the resulting harms of insufficient sleep (most readers are surely aware that insufficient sleep is bad for physical and mental well-being). This change is surprising in part because the American Academy of Pediatrics has, with limited success until now, been pushing for later school start times, insisting that school start times should facilitate the 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep appropriate for adolescent biology. It will be a difficult schedule transition for some California schools and families/guardians to adjust to, but the health rationale remains powerful.

Stigmatizing and manipulating students are problems, not solutions
It is also encouraging to see California legislate against lunch shaming. Unless prohibited, U.S. schools have the freedom to intentionally or incidentally shame students for being unable to afford their lunch meals. They have done so by giving indebted students inferior meals, marking the students with wristbands or stamps, etc. This is a serious health matter because imposing a stigmatized status upon a child, or even just amplifying an existing one, is a harmful act. Research is quite clear that stigma (“the co-occurrence of labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination in a context in which power is exercised”) is a powerful and pervasive cause of health injustices. Stigma stresses bodies, socially controls people, and excludes them from social opportunities and resources available to others. Being a child without enough money to pay for lunch is quite hard enough, without one’s school officials metaphorically painting a target on one’s back.

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Image description: Young person at the March for Our Lives protest, holding a placard painted with the words “AM I NEXT?” in red. Image source: Roger Jones/Public Domain.

The desirability of the California law gets clearer when one looks at a policy that goes in the opposite direction. In a widely-criticized lurch backwards, a newly-created policy in a New Jersey school district gives discretion to principals to ban students with lunch debt from participating in extracurricular activities. Which students? Under which circumstances? What goals are achieved by such exclusions? Certainly banning students from soccer practice or chess club doesn’t make money magically appear in their parents’ pockets. The policy is a setback, but I am encouraged by the backlash that gives a new sense of clarity to how remarkably regressive this policy is in light of the opposite trend.

Student advocacy should be welcomed
Most encouraging to me is the fact that students are advocating for themselves and the health of their schools. I am glad that the American Academy of Pediatrics and some California state legislators are advocating for healthier schools, but I have argued at length elsewhere that it is preferable to empower people advocate for themselves. And so students are. For instance, they have been at the forefront of a series of lobbying efforts (successful in Oregon and Utah) to get mental sick days recognized as legitimate reasons for missing school.

It is no coincidence that this push to create space for “mental health days” comes in the middle of a period of worsening mental health of young people in the U.S. Deaths from suicides just replaced deaths from homicides as the second leading cause of death among 15-19-year-olds (deaths from traffic accidents are down, but still exceed both). And homicides are also a target of student activism; after the Parkland school shooting, young people became the unexpected leaders of a new wave of gun control activism.

The late 2010s have been a time of disorienting rapid change, but I suspect that future historians will highlight one global social phenomenon: young people demanding a better world. The most prominent example is the rise of young climate change activists around the world—Greta Thunberg being the most famous—demanding action with a new sense of clarity and resolve. As I write this, Teen Vogue’s website teases an article with a link saying “Why Homeless Advocates Aren’t Happy With the 2020 Presidential Candidates” and an op-ed on radical labor organizing among nail salon workers.

Better health through better spaces
Even though lunch shaming, poor mental health, exhaustion and all sorts of other health problems still tragically afflict young people in schools, I am optimistic because it really does feel that the winds have shifted—thanks in large part to student activists, unhealthy schools are finally getting reforms they have long needed. As I argue at length in the book Philosophy of Population Health, health depends not just on whether we have good medical care, but also on whether the places where we live our everyday lives have been thoughtfully designed to support good health.

Sean Valles photo

Sean A. Valles, PhD, is an Associate Professor with an appointment in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is author of the 2018 book, Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. He is also Director of the MSU Science and Society @ State Program, supporting interdisciplinary faculty collaborations that join the humanities, arts, and sciences.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, November 28, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Valles: Recognizing Menstrual Supplies as Basic Health Necessities: The Bioethics of #FreePeriodsTrump’s Attempt to Reignite the Coal Industry Is Another Health Policy BlunderPolitics and the Other Lead Poisoning: The Public Health Ethics of Gun Violence; Climate Change and Medical Risk

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Patient dumping: why are patients disposable?

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD

A public uproar ensued when a video revealed hospital staff literally dumping a woman wearing only a gown and socks in frigid weather on the streets of Baltimore. Imamu Baraka, a psychotherapist, witnessed the incident and recorded it on his cellphone. In the video, we see Mr. Baraka questioning the security personnel about their activity, and then we see them silently walking away.

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Image description: a crumpled hospital gown is pictured on the edge of a concrete ledge. The background is a concrete sidewalk. Image source: Lynn Park/Flickr Creative Commons.

The fact that the public appeared to be surprised by this event was bewildering. Patient dumping is hardly a new phenomenon, and in fact, it should not come as a surprise that those being dumped in this fashion are predominately non-white, poor, homeless, mentally ill, uninsured, and drug users. So, what is patient dumping? It is when hospitals that are capable of providing necessary medical care fail to screen, treat, or appropriately transfer a patient, or alternatively, when they turn the patient away because of the patient’s inability to pay for services.

Hospitals have long relied on this tactic as a way to offset care for those patients who cannot cover their costs, and so the hospital then is not reimbursed—it is an economic profit-loss decision. But, this blog is not about blaming hospitals. It is about recognizing that patient dumping is a symptom of larger healthcare system and societal ills. Consider the following:

Thirty million people in the U.S. remain uninsured after Affordable Care Act (ACA) implementation. Forty million adults experience mental illness in a given year. 554,000 people in the U.S. are homeless. Forty-three million live in poverty. Every day, the opioid epidemic claims 175 lives. These many data points speak to the U.S.’ combined lack of healthcare and social safety nets. Filling those gaps alone could potentially avert patient dumping.

By default, public, not-for-profit hospitals are charged with caring for such vulnerable patients. In the era of value-based, pay-for-performance, and accountable care organization (ACO) reimbursement models, those hospitals consequently will struggle to meet Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services quality care metrics.

Federal legislation such as the Hill-Burton Act and later the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) were instituted to address legal and ethical concerns about patient dumping. Signed in 1946 by President Truman, Hill-Burton directed hospitals to make services available to anyone living in the geographic region of the hospital and to provide care free of charge to those individuals unable to pay. Signed in 1986 by President Reagan, EMTALA was enacted to protect all individuals seeking treatment at Medicare-participating hospital emergency departments. In addition to federal statutes, states also have passed legislation requiring hospitals to provide care irrespective of ability to pay and require that patients be medically stable before transfer. Regrettably, federal and state laws have not performed as was intended. Statutes designed to prevent patient dumping are criticized for 1) having narrow and unclear definitions of what constitutes a medical emergency; 2) failing to clarify what it means to stabilize patients before a transfer; and 3) failing to adequately provide the means for monitoring and enforcement (Ansell & Schiff, 1987).

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Image description: An aerial photo of a medical waiting area shows rows of blue chairs, and three seated individuals dispersed throughout. Image source: Erwin Morales/Flickr Creative Commons.

It would seem that patient dumping is symptomatic of larger macroeconomic and macrosocial issues. What possible solutions exist?

Suppose we actually provided health care to everyone? The ACA has greatly expanded insurance coverage by extending Medicaid, but many people remain uninsured due to prohibitive costs. Imagine having access to health insurance that was not employment dependent. Imagine that people with mild, moderate, and severe mental illness received comprehensive health services. Imagine a system of care that recognized that social determinants of health profoundly influence health outcomes. Imagine having food assistance folded in as part of a medical treatment.

Suppose we eradicated poverty and homelessness? Imagine a time when people could actually support themselves and their families because they made a living wage. Imagine that support was available for people to simultaneously work and pay for childcare.

Suppose we actually utilized comprehensive discharge planning for patients? Imagine planning documents that were easy to read and comprehend because health literacy was important. Imagine patients understanding the medications they needed to take when they got home. Imagine that prior to discharge patients had appointments scheduled for follow-up visits and had the transportation in place to get them there. Imagine providing support visits for elderly patients to make sure they were living in decreased fall risk environments.

Suppose we made the profession of medicine responsible for caring for our most vulnerable—the sickest sick and poorest poor? Imagine that all provider-patient panels included a significant number of homeless, poor, mentally ill, and uninsured individuals. Imagine an equal, fair, and just distribution of medical care service to the underserved that lightened that specific expectation on under-represented minority physicians (URMs). We know that URM physicians bear a disproportionate burden of providing care for the most vulnerable patients. Such a burden might substantially constrain their ability to meet quality care metrics for reimbursement.

Patient dumping is a harsh, cruel response to a healthcare and social system that can also be harsh and cruel. The goal for the U.S. healthcare system is to “ensure that every patient is a wanted patient regardless of ability to pay”.

Incidents of patient dumping such as the one recorded in Baltimore should not be cause for public consternation. The public protestation should instead be about macro-level systems and social ills that make such responses unsurprising. The above suppositions are probably wild-eyed idealist notions. But for a moment, just suppose they weren’t?

Karen Kelly-Blake photoKaren Kelly-Blake, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, August 9, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Kelly-Blake: Incarcerated AND Sick: At Risk for Pain, Injury, and DeathWhite Horse, White Faces: The Decriminalization of Heroin AddictionRacism and the Public’s Health: Whose Lives Matter?Concussion in the NFL: A Case for Shared Decision-Making?

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Dr. Cabrera a co-author of new article in ‘Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease’

Laura Cabrera photoA new article from Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera and co-authors has been published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The article, “Alzheimer’s Disease in the Latino Community: Intersection of Genetics and Social Determinants of Health,” was co-authored by Irving E.Vega, Laura Y. Cabrera, Cassandra M. Wygant, Daniel Velez-Ortiz, and Scott E. Counts.
Abstract
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common type of dementia among individuals 65 or older. There are more than 5 million diagnosed cases in the US alone and this number is expected to triple by 2050. Therefore, AD has reached epidemic proportions with significant socioeconomic implications. While aging in general is the greatest risk factor for AD, several additional demographic factors that have contributed to the rise in AD in the US are under study. One such factor is associated with the relatively fast growth of the Latino population. Several reports indicate that AD is more prevalent among blacks and Latinos. However, the reason for AD disparity among different ethnic groups is still poorly understood and highly controversial. The Latino population is composed of different groups based on nationality, namely South and Central America, Mexico, and Caribbean Hispanics. This diversity among the Latino population represents an additional challenge since there are distinct characteristics associated with AD and comorbidities. In this review, we aim to bring attention to the intersection between social determinants of health and genetic factors associated with AD within the Latino community. We argue that understanding the interplay between identified social determinants of health, co-morbidities, and genetic factors could lead to community empowerment and inclusiveness in research and healthcare services, contributing to improved diagnosis and treatment of AD patients. Lastly, we propose that inserting a neuroethics perspective could help understand key challenges that influence healthcare disparities and contribute to increased risk of AD among Latinos.

The full text is available on the IOS Press website (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Dr. Cabrera published in ‘Frontiers in Sociology’

Laura Cabrera photoCenter Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera has a new article in the open-access journal Frontiers in Sociology, titled “Reframing human enhancement: a population health perspective.”

The article is part of the research topic ELSI in Human Enhancement—ELSI stands for “ethical, legal and social implications.” Dr. Cabrera is a topic editor for ELSI in Human Enhancement, along with Dov Greenbaum of Yale University.

Abstract
The dominant understandings on human enhancement, such as those based on the therapy-enhancement distinction or transhumanist views, have been focused on high technological interventions directly changing biological and physical features of individuals. The individual-based orientation and reductionist approach that dominant views of human enhancement take have undermined the exploration of more inclusive ways to think about human enhancement. In this perspective, I argue that we need to expand our understanding of human enhancement and open a more serious discussion on the type of enhancement interventions that can foster practical improvements for populations. In doing so, lessons from a population health perspective can be incorporated. Under such a perspective, human enhancement focus shifts from changing the biological reality of individuals, to addressing environmental factors that undermine the optimal performance of individuals or that can foster wellness. Such a human enhancement perspective would be consistent with a population health approach, as it pursues more equitable and accessible interventions, on the path to addressing social inequality. Human enhancement does not need to be only about high-technological interventions for a selected group of individuals; rather it should be a continuous project aiming to include everyone and maximize the public benefit.

The full article text is available on the Frontiers in Sociology website.

CHM Flint endowed professor of public health to cap off Spring Brownbag Series

green brownbag and webinar iconSocial Determinants of Behavioral Health

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It is well established that place matters with respect to health and health outcomes. In behavioral health studies of violence, alcohol and other drug use, and mental health, there is growing evidence that environmental risk and social determinants are strong predictors of behavior in highly disordered environments. In fact, they may be more salient predictors of high-risk behavior than individual-level risk factors. The field of health equity research studies the context where people live, work, and play – i.e., where they experience health. Health equity research examines how the environment shapes and influences opportunities for optimal/sub-optimal health and considers related structural and policy interventions to address both built and social environments. Dr. Furr-Holden will provide examples of innovative environmental assessment methods that offer policy-relevant approaches to address the environment and environmental risk. In particular, highlighting policy-based research and implementation efforts in Flint, Michigan and the larger Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Region 5. Such action-oriented research builds on advancements in the field of geographic information systems and offers promising research, service, and advocacy integration in health equity and behavioral health promotion.

April 19 iconJoin us for Dr. Furr-Holden’s lecture on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 from noon till 1 pm in person or online.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden is a drug and alcohol dependence epidemiologist with expertise in prevention science, psychosocial measurement and behavioral health equity research and interventions. In the last decade her work has focused on developing environmental strategies and structural interventions for violence, alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention in high-risk settings. Dr. Furr-Holden is the former Director of Prevention for Baltimore City. Dr. Furr-Holden’s research is grounded in the rubrics of epidemiology and psychometrics and consistent with principles and practices for understanding social determinants of health and health equity. Dr. Furr-Holden is a C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Public Health Division.

In person: This lecture will take place in C102 East Fee Hall on MSU’s East Lansing campus. Feel free to bring your lunch! Beverages and light snacks will be provided.

Online: Here are some instructions for your first time joining the webinar, or if you have attended or viewed them before, go to the meeting!

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded! Visit our archive of recorded lectures. To receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our mailing list.