Food Insecurity: the Food Industry’s Best-Hidden Secret

By Rachel Zaretsky — Correspondent

Many Americans take for granted that they can eat three nutritious meals a day. However, many families throughout our nation experience food insecurity, which the USDA defines as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

 In 2020, it is estimated that about 10.5% of households in our country experienced food insecurity at some point during the year. According to dietitian, Director for the Master of Public Health in Nutrition, and lecturer at University of Massachusetts Amherst Heather Wemhoener, “At some point, about 1 in 10 households had (at least) inconsistent access to sufficient food for health and well-being.”

Wemhoener says that many societal issues contribute to food insecurity. “Supply chain issues, inflation, and unemployment [are examples]. Increasing costs of goods means that people are spending a higher percentage of their income on food. Higher fuel costs mean some may be choosing between fuel and food,” said Wemhoener.

Food, especially produce, is not cheap, making it difficult for families below the poverty line to purchase healthy foods and create balanced meals. Foods that lack nutrients and a balance of vitamins may be more inexpensive at the moment, but they can cost people’s lives and health. Obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes are only some of the health conditions that food insecure individuals deal with.

Government-funded programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are crucial to helping families with reduced costs for food, receive reduced or free school lunches for children, and other health-related benefits. 

Associate professor at Columbia University, Pamela Koch says that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help.

“In the class I teach on Community nutrition, I have students… do a SNAP experience for one week in which they have only 45 dollars for all of their food, and must get all of that food from SNAP eligible stores. This is usually a very humbling and very eye-opening experience for my students, as they realize that this is very hard,” said Koch.

As food insecure children attend school, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pay attention in class, participate, play sports, and engage in hobbies since they don’t have access to enough nutrient-rich food for a healthy and active life.

“Many [of my students] who exercise regularly say they just cannot exercise that week, and that makes them think about all of the children who are food insecure and would not have the energy for sports or other activities,” Koch added.

Food insecurity is something that over 37 million Americans face, and it isn’t just a coincidence. Past policies and societal motives have contributed to the divide between wealthy and poor. 

Most families that are food insecure are white, as there is a larger percentage of white families living in the United States. However, BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) families are more prone to food insecurity, reveals Koch.

“… this is directly linked to past policies and practices that have led to structural inequities resulting in BIPOC communities having lower resources which lead to increased rates of poverty, which is very connected to food insecurity” Koch added. 

Racsim and other forms of discrimination have led to minorites becoming food insecure. Past societal structure has pushed some minorities to the bottom class, and it isn’t completely their fault for ending up food insecure.

Food insecurity is an issue that stems from all of the loopholes and flaws of the policies in place. “Differences between states may be related to policies and services available in those areas, as well as how racism has historically shaped policies,” said Wemhoener.

Furthermore, Food insecurity can have a large impact on communities as a whole, “food insecurity has community, and even larger impacts…If we think about the fact that some states/spaces see higher rates of food insecurity, it’s unsurprising that these same spaces are also with lower income, poorer health outcomes, poorer academic performance, and higher rates of obesity,” said Wemhoener.

On an individual level, families with children are more prone to food insecurity. “There are certainly disparities with respect to who experiences food insecurity in the US. We don’t see the same amount of food insecurity across states in the US, and we see different households impacted differently…We see a higher rate of food insecurity (just under 15%) among all households with children” Wemhoener added.

“Having children also means needing additional resources, such as clothing, medications, etc. for more people in households,” Wemhoener says.

WIC, a nutrition program targeted toward women, infants, and children plays a role in helping single mothers put food on the table. 

The USDA reported that the WIC helps support about half of the babies born in the United States. Additionally, the WIC offers health care referrals, education on nutrition, support with breastfeeding, and healthy food to its participants, which is beneficial to food-insecure families.

Low wages, and sky high prices are the core of food insecurity in the United States and inflation is adding to the problem.

“There are lifelong consequences to the psychological and physical well-being of people experiencing food insecurity” Wemhoener said.

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