Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level. (USDA)
Food insecurity is a complex problem. Historically, it was thought to be directly related to unequal geographic access to food. This concept, also known as “food deserts,” gave rise to initiatives that brought fresh food directly to underserved neighborhoods — such as healthy corner store programs where store owners are incentivized to increase the selection of healthy foods available to customers.
However, strategies addressing food deserts do not address the primary structural factor that drives food insecurity: financial insecurity. Having access to nutritious food requires that the food be physically present in the local food system, and that households have sufficient financial resources to purchase it. Thus, poverty is the major proximal cause of food insecurity.
Food insecurity exists on a continuum: (Feeding America)
- On the least severe end of the spectrum, food insecurity manifests as household members’ worries or concerns about the foods they can obtain, and leads to adjustments in household food management, including reductions in diet quality through the purchase of less-expensive foods. There is generally little or no reduction in the quantity of household members’ food intake, but micro-nutrient deficiencies are common.
- As the severity of food insecurity increases, adults in the household often reduce the quantity of their food intake, to such an extent that they repeatedly experience the physical sensation of hunger. Because adults tend to ration their food as much as possible to shield the children in the household from the effects of food insecurity, children do not generally experience hunger at this level of insecurity, though their diets tend to be extremely poor in nutrients.
- In the most severe range of food insecurity, caretakers are forced to frequently reduce children’s food intake to such an extent that the children experience the physical sensation of hunger. Adults, in households both with and without children, consistently experience more extensive reductions in food intake at this stage
For some, food insecurity can be temporary, which many faced in the early day of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many more though, it is a daily reality that does not exist in isolation, as many families are affected by other multiple, overlapping issues like lack of affordable housing, social isolation, economic/social disadvantage resulting from structural racism, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages. Taken together, these issues are known as social determinants of health, a set of conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age that shape their health. Addressing all of these, including food insecurity, is important for improving long-standing inequities and reducing disparities in health and health care.
Research shows that people who experience ongoing food insecurity are less likely to have good nutrition which raises their risk of health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity — and even lowers life expectancy relative to people who do have access to healthy foods. Food-insecure children may also be at an increased risk for a variety of negative health outcomes, including obesity and negative effects on their mental health. They also face a higher risk of developmental problems and school engagement compared with food-secure children. (Healthy People)
Unfortunately, Black, Latino, and Native American households are disproportionately affected by food insecurity compared to their white peers. This lack of access stems from institutionalized discriminatory policies, and environmental factors, compounded by limited access to socially and culturally relevant food and care.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Food security is not only an equity issue, it also has a larger impact on the local economy. High food insecurity rates are associated with the growing healthcare costs. It also impacts human capital development as perpetual hunger damages the architecture of children’s brains, which makes it extremely difficult for them to ever reach their full potential as effective workers and members of society.
Addressing food insecurity is complex. The following list, though not exhaustive, are common approaches used to combat food insecurity:
- Environmental Access: In some cases, improving physical access to healthy food can reduce food insecurity. This may include: building a new grocery retail site, encouraging corner stores to stock healthy foods, operating a mobile grocery store, or offering transportation vouchers to those without vehicles.
- Food Assistance: There are many federal and state programs that supplement financial resources for low-income households like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Medicaid, to interventions like nutrition counseling and produce prescriptions. Many children access healthy food though programs like the National School Breakfast/Lunch Program.
- Food Distribution: Food banks play a huge role in helping households access food. Throughout the pandemic, New Venture Advisors witnessed how many food banks restructured their business model in order to provide more needed food effectively and efficiently.
- Food and Health System Partnerships: Understanding the specific food and nutrition needs of target populations is critical for implementing an effective program. A growing trend is building strategic initiatives based on insights from people in the local food and health systems. Together they have introduced interventions such as produce prescriptions, meal kits, community food programs, and farmer’s market produce tokens. As is the case for many programs directed towards specific populations, those that are the most effective integrate community voice into the planning and evaluation process, which is also necessary for building trust and participation.