Hi internet friends! I apologize for my couple week absence from the blog. I’ve actually just really been craving more and more time offline lately and have barely been using social media. To add to that, my computer is currently broken and being fixed at the Apple mail-in fixing center, so I’m not working with my usual materials here. If the formatting looks off at all, please let me know wand I’ll fix it when I get my regular computer back! But in the meantime, thought I’d pop on to chat about food security today. Specifically, what is food security? Why is food insecurity a problem? What factors contribute to food insecurity, and what can we do about it?
I feel like food security is talked about a lot in the media and/or in academic spaces, but often times food security is not defined or explained, so my hope is that this post can provide background context for those interested.
I am working on a climate refugees post coming up, but for now, enjoy this food security post!
What is food security?
Food security is defined by the UN as the condition of people, at all times, having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods that meet their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.
As pointed out by the WHO, food insecurity is not just a lack of food. Food insecurity does not necessarily cause hunger, but hunger is a possible outcome of food insecurity.
An individual may still be considered food insecure even if they are not experiencing hunger due to lack of food. If they do not have the right amounts or types of food they feel they need to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, they may still be considered food insecure.
For example, let’s say someone is on a very tight budget and can afford some staple foods like rice and beans but not much else. Half way through the month they run out of beans but still have enough rice to eat to feel ‘full.’ This individual may be considered food insecure, because they do not have access to enough food and variety to maintain a healthy diet or achieve optimal health.
Levels of food security
Food security can be temporary, or it can persist over time. A person’s level of food security depends on the severity and frequency by which a person experiences not having enough to meet their needs.
There are different levels of food security. The USDA defines high food security as no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations, and marginal food security as one or two reported indications – typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house with little to no indication of diet changes or food intake.
Low food security is defined as reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake. Very low food security is defined as reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intakes.
In the US, households with very low food security are typically characterized by worries about running out of food, having food purchased not last long enough, not being able to afford balanced meals, cutting out or skipping meals, eating less than one feels they should, feeling hungry but not eating well, losing weight, and in some cases, not eating for a whole day.
Why is food insecurity a problem?
Poor diet is a risk factor for a variety of chronic diseases. In particular, food insecurity is linked to visceral fat (which is linked to a variety of metabolic diseases), and weight gain. Food insecurity has also been linked with self-reported hypertension (high blood pressure).
Food insecurity may also cause stress, which may compound the impacts of poor nutrition and adverse health outcomes.
Food insecurity can have different impacts across the lifespan. In children, food insecurity is linked to a variety of health problems, inducing anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive issues, higher aggression and anxiety, behavioral problems, poorer oral health, poorer general health, and higher risks of hospitalization. Food insecurity is also linked to higher rates of asthma and suicide ideation in adolescents.
Food insecurity in pregnancy has been associated with higher risks of gestational weight gain, gestational diabetes, disordered eating, and higher levels of prenatal stress. Lactating women experiencing food insecurity also exhibit decreased levels of breastfeeding due to perceived poor maternal diet, high levels of stress, and limiting of healthy foods.
Infants born to food insecure mothers have higher rates of birth defects, anemia, cognitive problems, and anxiety.
Also, from a human rights standpoint, being stressed about being able to feed your body is something no one should have to experience.
What causes food insecurity?
Food insecurity has many influencing factors. Poverty is a key driver of food insecurity, as limited income limits an individual’s ability to afford healthy nutritious food. Other contributing factors include unemployment, low wages, lack of access to healthy or safe food, and racial and ethnic disparities (all of which are indeed linked to poverty).
Systemic racism plays a role in food insecurity, as it does many public health crises.
For example, in 2016, black households were almost twice as likely to be food insecure compared to the national average.
A lack of adequate social services contributes to the problem. While federal food assistance programs like SNAP, WIC, and school lunch programs help combat the issues, for many, they fall short of adequacy.
SNAP (or “food stamps”), for example, provides an average of $131 per month for a single individual who qualifies for the program. That’s $32.75/week, or roughly $4.68 per day. Eating a healthy balanced diet on that amount of money is hard, especially when you consider many people who use SNAP may not have access to decent grocery stores.
Furthermore, to qualify for SNAP, an individual must make no more than $16,248 per year. If you make even a dollar over the qualifying limit, you don’t receive benefits. In my personal and professional opinion, there is room for increasing funds for SNAP and other social services to reach more people in need.
Food security around the world
It is estimated that 870 million people around the world do not have access to enough nutritious and safe food to meet their needs. Food insecurity varies by region; sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Carribean, and East Asia are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
Yemen is currently experiencing one of the worst food insecurity emergencies, with over 20 million Yemenis considered food insecure, and an additional 10 million being considered acutely food insecure.
Projections that were completed before the pandemic hit suggest that food security may improve over the next decade; gains in food security vary depending on region.
It’s also worth noting that COVID-19 may impact particularly vulnerable populations and have an impact on food security levels globally.
Food security in the US
According to the USDA, 11.1% of US households were food insecure at some point during 2018 (the most recent year that data is available for). This equates to approximately 14.3 million Americans.
Feeding America estimates that more than 54 million people, including 18 million children, may experience food insecurity in 2020. Because the coronavirus has increased the number of families experiencing poverty, it is quite reasonable to assume it will have an impact on food insecurity.
Food insecurity is a major issue in our country, the richest in the world, where 72 billion pounds of food are wasted each year. There are opportunities to decrease food insecurity in the US, and as individuals, we should be working for policies that better serve those in need.
What is being done about food insecurity?
Policies and interventions to combat food insecurity vary greatly around the world. Organizations like the WHO, UN, FAO, the World Food Program, and Unicef all work with countries to reduce the burdens of malnutrition and food insecurity.
Social welfare programs mentioned above (including SNAP, WIC, etc) also help combat the problem, although they could reach more people with increased funding.
A variety of charities also work to end hunger, although sometimes even those with the best intentions are not able to deliver enough nutritious food to those in need.
If you are within the US and would like to find out how to get involved in fighting food insecurity in your area, check out this interactive map from Feeding America. You can also donate money and/or food you to local food banks.
Importantly, you can also advocate for policies that address food insecurity and provide more funding for social welfare programs that address food insecurity and malnutrition.
Take home: food security
Food security is the condition of people, at all times, having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods that meet their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life. Unfortunately, many people are food insecure, meaning they lack access to sufficient safe and nutritious foods to meet theetoxir needs at all time.
Food insecurity is a problem around the world, with varying levels of food insecurity depending on the country and region. Even in the US, the richest country in the world, food insecurity remains a major problem.
As the global population continues to increase, we must come up with innovative and sustainable solutions to combat food insecurity that produce more sustainable food and better distribute food so it does not go to waste. Coronavirus is likely to increase levels of food insecurity around the world, presenting further challenges.
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