The Effects of Food Insecurity on Society

Imagine going to your local grocery store and not being able to find a vegetable or a piece of fruit. You wander around the aisles, wondering why there isn’t any skim milk, brown rice, or whole grain bread. What will you feed yourself, your family, or your two-year-old? 

In the United States, some consumers live in food deserts, which means they have limited access to affordable, healthy foods. It’s possible that they live far from a larger grocery store and don’t have the transportation to get there. Segments of the food insecure population may be able to get to a grocery store but cannot afford nutritious items. Both situations tend to impact those who live in low-income communities. Interestingly, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed in a Dec. 2018 report, a major affected population is college students. 

What Is Food Insecurity?

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,food insecurity is when people don’t have consistent access to the food required for a healthy lifestyle. While there may sometimes be a connection between food insecurity and hunger, they’re not the same issue. Hunger refers to a physical sensation, while food insecurity is specifically about how limited finances reduce the availability of healthy foods.

It’s important to note, though, that food insecurity is a way to determine if a person is at risk for hunger. According to Feeding America, one out of eight people in the U.S. struggle with hunger. In households that deal with both food insecurity and hunger, the impact may be greater. 

Food Insecurity and Obesity

People who face food insecurity may be more prone to obesity, particularly women. Food insecurity doesn’t necessarily cause obesity, but the same factors that lead to food insecurity may also lead to obesity. Both are possible effects of how low-income households have limited access to healthy foods. Low-income households also have higher rates of stress, which can contribute to obesity. Considering the quality of food in such areas, as well as the sedentary lifestyles of many Americans, it’s easy to understand how food insecurity could be one of many causes of obesity.

Effects on Mental Health

According to Science Daily, food insecurity may contribute to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Being uncertain of one’s ability to have enough food or to purchase enough food in the future can lead to stress (which may result in anxiety or depression). Acquiring food in a way that’s socially unacceptable (such as by “dumpster diving” or stealing) can cause the individual to feel alienated, guilty, or powerless, which are also emotions associated with depression. These symptoms may be present in a household with mild food insecurity and can worsen in households with severe food insecurity. 

How College Students are Impacted

Food insecurity has long-lasting negative effects. It may be a joke that college students often live off ramen, but lack of access to a nutritious meal could not only hamper their ability to properly study and participate, but could cause health problems. The GAO reportfound that nearly 2 million at-risk students were eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly called “food stamps”) but were not receiving benefits in 2016. 

The study noted that “Federal student aid generally does not cover all college costs for low-income students, and college students may have limited access to federal food assistance programs such as SNAP because of program eligibility restrictions.”  

About 29 percent of U.S. undergraduates not only had low income, but also experience an additional risk factor for food insecurity. Another 15 percent had low income and two or more additional risk factors. These two segments make up 35 and 39 of the total low-income undergraduates, for a total of 75 percent of low-income graduates with one or more additional risk factors. Those in 2-year or colleges or less-than-2-year programs were more likely to have multiple risk factors. 

“I don’t tell my family that I’m struggling with food because everyone I know is struggling with money — I don’t want to stress them out,” one student was quoted in the report. “It’s not a comfortable conversation to have. I haven’t lived with my parents in years, I wouldn’t know how to ask them for help.”

How Colleges Are Helping

Colleges from the Community College of Rhode Islandto San Joaquin Delta Collegein Stockton, CA, Ole Missto all seven Chicago-area community collegesare opening food pantries for their students. The University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss, pantry serves about 50 people per month. The California legislature approved $2.5 million to address college food insecurity, both to educate students and open food pantries or similar food distributors on campuses. 

Many of the eligibility requirements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are the same as SNAP, and some colleges are helping students complete applications for both at the same time. 

How Teenagers Are Impacted

For many, though, food insecurity starts before college. Stress caused by food insecurity is especially worrisome among teenagers. Teens struggling with hunger are up to 12 times more likelyto disobey teachers, get into fights, or steal. They may also be more prone to depression and suicidal thoughts. They often have trouble focusing on schoolwork as a result of poor sleep and health. While teachers and school officials can take action to combat the obesity epidemic in schools, many districts do not have the resources or support to resolve the issue on a systemic level. 

Teenagers who grow up in a food insecure household and have a good chance of becoming a food insecure adult. One reason for this is the cycle of poverty. When the cycle of poverty begins, it’s difficult to escape unless there’s outside intervention. Considerable change in circumstances could help, such as moving or getting a new, higher-paying job. While attending college is a step in the right direction, teens who come from poverty may have trouble finishing school. 

Final Thoughts: The Future of Food Insecurity

Food security continues to be a pressing issue in the U.S. This is especially true for food insecure people who are above the poverty line. They may not know about services that are available to them, or they may make too much money (even if their income is still low) to qualify for certain programs. Though there’s plenty of food produced in the U.S., a large number of individuals and families continue to face food insecurity and hunger.

Since food insecure households often have trouble getting to the grocery store, groups like Feeding Children Everywhere and La Soupe deliver food to those in need. There are also organizations that gather unused food and distribute it to churches, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. However, since food insecurity and hunger may accompany larger issues of inequality, it’s likely that improving healthcare and education for the poor could also positively impact food security issues.


Avery PhillipsAvery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.

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