US Food Insecurity and Suggestions for Intervention by Avery Indermaur

The USDA defines food insecurity for a U.S. household as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited and uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”[1] Food insecurity includes the financial inability to afford adequate food alongside the physical barriers, distributional problems, and mental stresses associated with not having access to a nutritious and reliable food supply.[2] In 2018, 11.1% of US households were food insecure,[3] with the largest rates of food insecurity found in households with children or headed by a single adult, adults living alone, and non-white or low-income households.[4] Alleviating food insecurity is essential for improving health outcomes in the US. To achieve this goal, existing support systems like food pantries should be revived to increase regularity of food provision, improve nutrition, and decrease stigma associated with their use.

Living in a food insecure environment has significant negative physical and mental health impacts. Food insecurity in the U.S. is a risk factor for diet-related diseases including diabetes, heart failure, and kidney disease and is linked to higher BMI and chance of obesity.[5] Running out of food or going without food increases one’s risk of psychological distress, anxiety, and depression.[6] Food insecurity is especially harmful for children, since they are vulnerable to previously mentioned health problems as well as impaired brain development and educational outcomes.[7]

Causes of food insecurity are different for high- and low- or middle-income countries. Low- and middle-income countries may face inadequate access to calories and nutrition, resulting in malnourishment and stunting.[8] High-income countries, however, often have enough calories from cheap, low-nutrient foods while sufficient nutrition can be prohibitively expensive, contributing to food insecurity and obesity.[9]

To help address US food insecurity, food pantries, which directly distribute free groceries to those in need,[10]  have been placed in many vulnerable communities. While some studies support the effectiveness of food pantries,[11] they also face a host of problems. Food pantries are highly reliant on donated food and volunteer workers, which makes their ability to provide regular food access somewhat uncertain.[12] The donation set-up also fosters lower nutrition, since fruit, vegetable, and milk product donations are rare.[13] Food pantry clients also sometimes feel shame when using the pantry, considering it a last-resort option.[14]

Shifting to a reformed client-choice model for food pantries could address many of these issues.[15] In this model, food pantries are re-named community or food markets and are operated like grocery stores, with clients making their own selections from foods provided instead of receiving a box of pre-prepared items. [16]  Currently, most US food pantries are operated by Feeding America, a food banking network sponsored by individual donors, corporate partnerships, and government grants,[17] which could be responsible for orchestrating and running the new program.

To improve regularity of donations, food market organizers should establish consistent donation schedules with local farmers, individual gardeners, and providers of food surplus from grocery stores or restaurants.[18] Community leaders should be consulted when making the schedule so that high periods of food demand in a specific community can be aligned with high donation levels, reducing uncertainty of food access and food waste.[19]

Market organizers can address nutritional inadequacy by removing sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods from food market shelves.[20] They should also focus community donations on healthier items, like peanut butter or canned vegetables, even though it may mean turning away offers of unhealthy products.[21] Fresh fruit and vegetable donations should also be prioritized and strategically placed in the front of stores at eye level.[22]

Shifting to the client-choice food market model inherently decreases stigma associated with food pantries. The name “food market” has fewer negative associations with receiving handouts, and clients are empowered to make their own item selections.[23] The client-choice model also allows staff and volunteers to spend more time talking to clients about nutrition, healthy options, and cooking techniques, which adds an educational component to markets alongside improving volunteer morale.[24]

Overall, food pantry reforms could play a significant role in the alleviation of US food insecurity. Instead of requiring new programs or infrastructure, this intervention makes use of a system already operating in areas that are at-risk for food insecurity. Moving to a model of client-choice food markets could increase reliability, provide better nutrition, and decrease stigma associated with these organizations, lessening the severity of food insecurity in the US and improving physical and mental health outcomes.

 

 

[1] “What is Food Security,” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, last modified September 4, 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/measurement.aspx#security.

[2] Hilary K. Seligman and Seth A. Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies to Support Food Security and Public Health Goals in the United States,” Annual Review of Public Health 40, (2019): 319-337.

[3] “Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2018,” United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, last modified September 4, 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx.

[4] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 320.

[5] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 321.

[6] Rachel Loopstra, “Interventions to address household food insecurity in high-income countries,” The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 77, no. 3 (2018): 270-281.

[7] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 322.

[8] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 321.

[9] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 321.

[10] “Food Bank vs. Food Pantry,” Second Harvest Food Bank, accessed March 21, 2020, https://nwpafoodbank.org/get-educated/food-bank-vs-food-pantry/.

[11] Loopstra, “Interventions,” 274.

[12] Loopstra, “Interventions,” 275.

[13] Loopstra, “Interventions,” 275.

[14] Loopstra, “Interventions,” 275.

[15] Brett Rowland et al., “Improving Health while Alleviating Hunger: Best Practices of a successful Hunger Relief Organization,” Current Developments in Nutrition 2, no. 9 (2018): 1-14.

[16] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 5.

[17] Megan Bucknum and Deborah Bentzel, “Chapter 13 – Food Banks as Local Food Champions: How Hunger Relief Agencies Invest in Local and Regional Food Systems,” in Institutions as Conscious Food Consumers, (London: Elsevier Inc., 2019), 285-305.

[18] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 5.

[19] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 5.

[20] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 3.

[21] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 5.

[22] Seligman and Berkowitz, “Aligning Programs and Policies,” 329.

[23] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 2.

[24] Rowland et al., “Improving Health,” 2.

4 thoughts on “US Food Insecurity and Suggestions for Intervention by Avery Indermaur

  1. This was a very informative and thoughtful reflection about food pantries! Before reading this, I knew little about how food pantries operated. Now, I am excited to engage in discussion about ways to reduce food insecurity! Two aspects of your post particularly resonated with me. First, I really appreciate the way that you critically evaluated the effectiveness of food pantries. Many times, especially regarding the newer field of eco-friendliness, people consider the direct and obvious ways they can boost an initiative; for example, advocating for more resources through donations. However, they often neglect process. I thought that your solution to reconfigure food pantries into food markets was an extremely creative solution that fixed a gap in the process. Furthermore, it addressed the inner feelings and habits of potential clients. People’s motivations and values are nuances that I think often goes overlooked, so I was excited to see them included in your blog.

    Secondly, I think the fact that your recommendations can be integrated into an existing system reflects a greater trend in environmental solutions that will be necessary in order to combat the negative effects of climate change (and other world issues for that matter). Often times, new initiatives are launched or solutions are presented as silver-bullet panaceas when in reality they are extremely difficult to implement. Electric cars, for instance, are an important stride towards decreasing gas emissions, but they are also faced with a dearth of infrastructure to make their transition more seamless. As such, increasing fuel economy standards and integrating creative ways to improve internal combustion engine efficiency is an important piece of the puzzle as well, and one that can be more easily integrated into society for the time being. Likewise, I appreciate your ability to simultaneously think inside and outside the box!

  2. Like Elizabeth, I think that this is a very creative and feasible response to the issue of food insecurity in the US. It’s also especially relevant right now, when so many families are relying on food pantries and donations to survive during the COVID-19 outbreak. What I appreciate the most about your post is that it considers, first and foremost, the people involved in the situation. Human emotions and agency cannot be left out of policy, and I think that your focus on a client-choice model and a renaming of food pantries to food markets really highlights this. These suggestions are in-touch with the fact that real people are on the other end of this issue, and that the most effective solution can only be created by viewing food insecurity from the perspective of people who are food insecure.

    The feasibility of your suggestions is also important. You give a concrete plan for addressing food insecurity in the US, and that reflects on both your knowledge of the issue and an ability to translate that knowledge into action. In addition, the plan does not necessitate an extreme or costly reform. Instead, it presents reasonable changes that will have a huge impact. That’s exactly the type of plan that can actually be implemented. This a timely reflection on food insecurity, and I feel more prepared to act on the issue knowing that there are feasible solutions.

  3. This was a very interesting blog post about a pressing issue. I think this is an area where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, society bears the cost of food insecurity through the healthcare system. Healthier options for the food insecure would ultimately save money in lower healthcare costs. Client Choice Food Pantries seem to be the best path to improving the current system of food assistance. Organizations like Feeding America already encourage people to donate cash instead of canned goods on the grounds of efficiency and health and Client choice pantries seem to be a natural extension of this model. To me, however, this raises some more overarching questions about food insecurity. As commendable as food pantries are, it seems odd that such an important job as feeding the food insecure is left up to nonprofits. While the government does ameliorate aspects of food insecurity through programs like SNAP, direct government provisioning of food pantries may be a more efficient policy solution, especially given that food insecurity just as much of an expression of resources to buy food as it is what food is geographically available . Well thought out government control of the food pantry system could strategically locate client choice food pantries in food deserts. I’m curious about if client choice models are more expensive than the current system and if the food pantry system could logistically transition wholesale into a client choice model. If not, then this is a case for more direct government subsidy of food pantries or perhaps direct federal control.

  4. I found this post on addressing food-insecurity issues very interesting and informative. I really liked how you first dove into the health implications of the current food bank model, emphasizing the fact that it’s not just calories that matter, but also nutritional value (which tends to be insufficient given the constraints of the current food pantry model). Food pantries today are not equipped to store fresh produce, and this is certainly problematic for the families that rely on these pantries for a large proportion of their nutritional needs. I completely agree with the proposed transition to a client-choice food market model. I think the client-choice model will drive people to choose healthier foods by providing both food-choices and better nutritional education (particularly if this educational component is built into the duties of certain volunteers). Though some might be concerned about people taking more than they need when they have “free-reign” in the client-choice model, I do not think this would be a problem; not only would people avoid taking excess fresh produce because of the fact that they know it will go to waste, but I think that creating a transparent/flexible scheduling system (for donations and/or visitations) will encourage people to only take what they need since they’ll be able to know with certainty when they will be able to get more food in the future. I had not thought about the stigma around using a “food pantry,” and I really like the point you make about how simple it would be to help eliminate the feelings of shame that those suffering from food insecurity face when they use a food pantry today.

    As Rise mentioned in his comment, I too am curious about the costs of a client-choice model compared to traditional food pantries. That said, there’s little in this post to suggest that it would be an expensive transition to reform food pantries according to the client-choice model. And even if client-choice food markets are slightly more costly than the current food pantry model, I anticipate that the benefits of this transition would far outweigh the costs. This program has the potential to massively reduce both food insecurity and food waste while also empowering and educating communities that are at-risk for food-security. It seems to be a relatively simple fix for a very large problem, and I really appreciate your insight. I definitely learned a lot about this topic!

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