What Is Food Insecurity — and Who Is at Risk?

It doesn’t always mean you’re hungry and losing weight.

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Nutrition advice often assumes that you have the resources to choose the healthiest possible foods. Need more fiber? Choose fresh fruit instead of juices. Want more whole-grain goodness? Pick hearty ancient grains instead of white bread. Looking for lean protein? Choose tempeh instead of chicken nuggets.

Unfortunately, for some people, food choices are more limited. As of 2016, 12 percent of people in the United States met the criteria for “food insecure,” according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).

What Is Food Insecurity?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as disrupted eating patterns, reduced food intake, and/or reduced quality of diet. While hunger isn’t a requirement of food insecurity, it’s a common result of it.

People who are food insecure may not have a consistent or adequate income to buy nutritious foods. For example, people who are unemployed or under-employed (working a job that does not pay a living wage) may not be able to afford meals on a daily basis.

Others who are food insecure may lack access to nutritious foods, even if they could afford it. For example, food insecurity commonly affects families living in food deserts—that is, neighborhoods without full-service grocery stores. To make it worse, these communities may also lack adequate and affordable transportation options to get to better grocery stores.

People in food deserts often have to rely on convenience stores or dollar stores, which only provide processed, canned, and frozen foods. While they may be getting enough calories each day, they are considered food insecure because they are “fed but under-nourished,” which can increase the risk of diet-related chronic diseases. (Check out how this politician is advocating for healthier diets in Brooklyn.)

Risk Factors for Food Insecurity

Food insecurity most commonly affects people who are already dealing with adversity—that is, those who may be dealing with things like poverty or disability. Put simply, food insecurity is not a personal failure, but a structural problem that highlights the economic inequality throughout the country.

According to the ODHPH, risk of food insecurity increases for people who…

  • Live in a low-income household: About 32 percent of low-income households met the criteria for food insecure in 2016, which is over double the national average.

  • Are unemployed: Children who are food insecure are more likely to have a parent who is unemployed than children who are not food insecure.

  • Have a disability: People with disabilities are less likely to be employed and more likely to have challenges traveling to full-service grocery stores.

  • Are black or Hispanic: Food insecurity affected 23 percent of black households in 2016 and 19 percent of Hispanic households—both of which are higher than the national average of 12 percent.

  • Live in a food desert: Neighborhoods without full-service grocery stores tend to be predominantly low-income, black or Hispanic families.

The Health Risks of Food Insecurity

Lacking access to nutritious foods is often reduced down to “fighting hunger,” but unfortunately, food insecurity goes far beyond grumbling tummies.

People who are food insecure have higher rates of chronic diseases—especially heart disease and type 2 diabetes. To make it worse, they are also less likely to have access to appropriate medical care due to cost or lack of health insurance.

Food insecurity—perhaps unexpectedly—also increases the risk of obesity. That’s because people in food deserts have to rely on less healthy food options, like fast food and frozen dinners, which tend to be higher in calories, sodium, and saturated fat.

And finally, food insecurity can also affect mental health. Worrying about where the next meal will come from can lead to chronic and severe stress, especially for parents trying to feed their families. Plus, a low-quality diet can lead to inflammation in the body and brain, which could have consequences for mental health. (Learn more about how inflammation may affect mood here.)

Community programs to address hunger are doing great work in neighborhoods with high rates of food insecurity. However, this structural problem may need structural solutions, which could not only reduce the number of Americans plagued by hunger, but also the rates of devastating chronic diseases and its burden on the healthcare system, not to mention the families who experience them.