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Food Insecurity and Health

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN

Published: October 11, 2021

Reviewed: September 27, 2021

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Food insecurity is when there is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity also could mean someone is getting enough to eat in terms of calories but the quality, variety and desirability of their food is lacking. Malnutrition can be an unintended consequence of food insecurity and it can attribute to many health conditions and chronic diseases.

According to the USDA, 11% of American households were food insecure in 2018. And nearly 14% of households with children were food insecure. That's over 37 million Americans living in food insecure households. Children who lack access to healthful food may have difficulty learning, as well as mood and behavioral problems. Adults who lack access to healthful food may experience mental health issues and chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Social determinants of health play a role in food insecurity. The conditions in which an person lives impacts how easy it is to get healthful foods. For instance, homes located in suburbs tend to experience lower rates of food insecurity compared to those in more urban or rural areas. Poverty and unemployment can lead to food insecurity. Additionally, racial disparities exist. According to the USDA, in 2018 Black households and Hispanic households experienced rates of food insecurity higher than the national average.

As a result of these driving forces, individuals may choose less expensive, calorie-dense foods that don’t deliver all of the nutrients they need. This may lead to unintended weight gain or chronic health conditions from the lack of nutrients their bodies need.

If you or someone you know is food insecure in the United States, there are a number of resources that can help:

Food bank: free grocery items and meals.

National School Lunch Program: low-cost or free lunches for eligible children.

Meals on Wheels: delivering meals to seniors in need.

School Breakfast Program: low-cost or free breakfasts for eligible children.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC): supplemental food and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children up to age five.

Summer Food Service Program: free lunches for school-age children in low-income areas during summer months and when school is not in session.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): nutrition assistance for low-income individuals and families.


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