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Understanding Food Insecurity and Its Health Impacts

November 24, 2020

Every week, millions of Americans struggle to figure out how they are going to feed themselves and their families. They cannot afford a balanced meal, and they are worried that the food they have will not last. They may skip meals or eat less than they think they should.

This is known as food insecurity. It is the disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to lack of money and other resources.

People may experience food insecurity for many reasons. They may be unemployed or working low-wage jobs. They may also live in a place with no supermarkets nearby. Or they may not have transportation to make it to a grocery store or a food pantry.

This comes down to the drivers of health, which include:

  • where people live,
  • what stores are nearby,
  • the types of jobs they can have,
  • their access to transportation
  • and other life circumstances.
What we eat also has a big impact on our health. Social factors and food insecurity can lead to health issues like Type 2 diabetes, heart conditions, or obesity.

Food insecurity can also impact children's mental health and development. They may end up falling behind in language and motor skills. They could also develop behavioral problems like aggression, anxiety, and depression.

But those facing food insecurity have options. Government and nonprofit organizations have programs to help those facing food insecurity. Nonprofits like Feeding America and Share Our Strength provide meals to those in need. Food pantries across America help individual communities, while government programs through the Department of Agriculture create grants to fund food security initiatives.

What is a food desert?

People who live in a "food desert" have an especially hard time accessing affordable, nutritious food. These areas lack stores with affordable or good quality fresh food.

In urban areas, food deserts are areas where most people have low incomes and live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, food deserts exist where most people live more than 10 miles from those types of stores, combined with low incomes.

Technically people in these areas have sources of food, such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants. But, those options have limited selections. And, what is available often is not very nutritious.

Some communities are working to bring more supermarkets to food deserts. Some also include shuttle service or other features to make them more accessible.

Health risks of food insecurity

When people do not have consistent access to nutritious food, their health can suffer. In a study published by the National Institutes of Health, one in three adults who experienced food insecurity were obese.

It may seem odd that people who are hungry can end up being overweight or even obese. There are several reasons this happens. One is that people with inconsistent access to food may overeat when they have it.

Also, the food that they do have access to may be high in fat and sugar, and low in essential nutrients. Foods with refined grains, sugars and fats are often less expensive that nutrient-dense foods. So, less healthy foods generally cost less. This is the type of food found in fast food restaurants that populate food deserts, even in the absence of a grocery store.

The added stress of struggling to access or provide food can also cause weight gain. Studies have shown that biological changes due to chronic stress contribute to obesity.

Obesity is linked to many chronic conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and bone and joint problems.

Adults who face food insecurity are two to three times more likely to have diabetes than other adults. And food insecurity can further impair those with Type 2 diabetes. It is more difficult for them to control their blood sugar with an inconsistent diet. They are nearly twice as likely to end up in the emergency room.  

Children that do not have a consistent and nutritious diet are also at higher risk for being overweight or obese. The percentage of kids with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol has increased in recent years. These kids are also at higher risk for asthma and dental problems.

Kids who are overweight or obese are also more likely to have emotional and behavioral issues, such as low self-esteem, ADHD and depression. This makes a difference in their mental as well as physical development.

Programs to address food insecurity

The events of 2020 have raised awareness about food insecurity as an issue for millions of Americans. Some of these families are facing it for the first time. Programs that help people access food are even more in demand. People who have lost jobs or cannot access places where they got food in the past now need these services as well.

People with low incomes can use federal, state, and local government programs. These include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs feed healthy meals to school-age children from low income households. After-school programs and summer programs at places like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs help feed kids outside school.

Several national and local nonprofit organizations also work to give nutritious food to those in need. Feeding America, WhyHunger, Share Our Strength and Meals on Wheels are some of the most widespread.

Innovative organizations work with local organizations that community members already use. These include churches, community centers, and health clinics. They buy and distribute produce and healthy food, making it more affordable and accessible. 

Anthem is doing its part as well, creating initiatives to help educate about and fight food insecurity. One partnership with the Green Bronx Machine helps teach youth how to grow vegetables in their classrooms. Along the way, they learn about the importance of healthy food.

These programs are doing vital work. Helping people access nutritious food makes an important difference in their health and well-being.