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Food Insecurity and Health

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Published: October 11, 2021

Reviewed: February 22, 2023

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Food insecurity is when there is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Malnutrition can be an unintended consequence of food insecurity and it can attribute to many health conditions and chronic diseases.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10.2% of American households were food insecure in 2021. And nearly 6.2% of households with children were food insecure. That's around 13.5 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.

In addition, a recent report from the U.S. Secretary of Defense found that approximately 15.4% of all active duty personnel would be classified by the USDA as having low food security in 2018. Another 10.4% would be classified as having very low food security.

Social determinants of health play a role in food insecurity. The conditions in which a person live impacts how easy it is to get healthful foods. For instance, poverty and unemployment can lead to food insecurity. Additionally, racial disparities exist. According to the USDA, in 2021, Black households and Hispanic households experienced rates of food insecurity higher than the national average. In 2021, all households with children, and households lead by a single parent, also experienced food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than the national average.

As a result of these driving forces, individuals may choose less expensive, calorie-dense foods that don’t deliver all 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: Local food banks and food pantries are often community run and organized resources that provide groceries and meals to individuals who need them. Feeding America is a national network that provides a variety of additional resources, like SNAP application assistance, as well.

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

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

Meals on Wheels: This program is focused primarily on individuals with decreased mobility and who are 60 years of age and older. Participants are eligible for free or low-cost meals which may be served at senior centers or delivered to their homes.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC): WIC is designed to serve pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women at nutrition risk, in addition to infants and children up until the age of five who are at nutritional risk. Program participants are eligible to receive supplemental foods and nutrition education.

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

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

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