Understanding Food Insecurity
The first step to addressing food insecurity is acknowledging that it’s not an isolated problem, but the byproduct of other contributing factors that don’t just overlap, but feed into each other: things like affordability, proximity, underemployment, and even time. Any one of these things can lead to nutrition inequality—but they often exist together, as a web of inequities.
Proximity: What’s the closest option for healthy, affordable, and culturally-appropriate groceries?
Many of us are probably familiar with the term “food desert,” which the USDA defines as a low-income area where one-third of the population lives more than a mile away (or 10 miles for rural areas) from a supermarket, grocery store, or farmer’s market. Often, the closest affordable option may be a fast food or a convenience store—or, the foods and ingredients aren’t culturally diverse.
And there’s another important caveat. Some experts actually don’t love the term “food desert,” since it oversimplifies this lack of proximity as just a “food” issue. In reality, lack of transportation, affordable pricing, and other general infrastructure can all have an impact on access as well. Case in point: Many researchers on the ground have noted that rates of food access and household dietary choices don’t always change when supermarkets are introduced to “food desert” areas. In fact, some families choose to travel further to big box stores where they can stretch their dollar. Which brings us to our next point… (3,4,5)
Affordability: Even if groceries are nearby, are they affordable? Does the closest food source accept SNAP?
It’s important to remember that for many families and individuals, even just falling on hard times temporarily—a month out of work due to layoffs, or a steep medical bill, for example—can be a tipping point into food insecurity. And for many others, it’s a persistent battle.
When it comes down to it, both budget constraints and food pricing can have a huge impact on the choices we make—especially when those healthier options are more expensive, and the opportunity for price comparison is limited. Studies have shown that urban residents who buy their groceries at small, neighborhood stores can pay anywhere from 3 to 37 percent more than those purchasing the same groceries at supermarkets in suburban areas. That’s not even to mention the impact of general inflation: According to the USDA, an increase of 1 percent in the annual relative price of food (i.e., the ratio of food price to the price of all goods and services) was associated with a 0.6-percentage-point increase in the prevalence of food insecurity. (6,7)
For those who are eligible, the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers a supplemental way to purchase groceries and bridge the gap of proximity: Convenience stores, for example, make up 45% of all eligible SNAP retailers, and must adhere to strict food stocking guidelines to qualify. (8)
Un(der)employment: Is it difficult to find a consistent paycheck? Does it take working several jobs to make ends meet?
Quick lesson: “Unemployment” specifically refers to being out of work, while “underemployment” describes working less hours or at a lower skill level than someone’s needs and/or qualifications. Often, those who are underemployed need to work several jobs to make ends meet.
It’s a necessary distinction, but it’s also worth noting that both unemployment and underemployment can have a major impact on someone’s time and ability to put a healthy meal on the table. And it’s also one of the key systemic factors that can help explain why BIPOC and LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately affected by food inequality: Black and Latinx workers have consistently experienced unemployment and underemployment at higher rates than white workers. And transgender people are twice as likely to experience unemployment (and poverty) as the rest of the population. (9,10)
The direct link between an inconsistent paycheck and the ability to afford consistent food might seem fairly obvious. But we can go a step further and quantify it: According to the USDA, an increase of just 1 percentage point in the unemployment rate during a given year is associated with an increase in food insecurity by .5 of a percentage point. Consider the major spike in unemployment as a result of the recent climate, and you might have an idea of how much food insecurity will be an issue for so many individuals and families this year. Crazier still: As of May, even though white unemployment started to drop (to 12.4%), Black unemployment actually rose to 16.8%, widening the gap. (7,11)
Discrimination: Does someone face multiple obstacles—employment, housing, and assistance programs, for example—due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability?
In a study of 669 caregivers (95% female) from 2015 to 2017, researchers at Drexel University found that those who experienced discrimination at school, work, applying for housing, bank loans, SNAP and other assistance programs, or by police were significantly more likely to experience household food insecurity. For example, women who reported discrimination at school were 60% more likely to be food insecure, and those who reported discrimination at work were 77% more likely to be food insecure. (12)
This is just one snapshot that illustrates the way that food insecurity is intertwined with so many other deeply systemic problems that put certain populations at an inherent (and grossly unfair) disadvantage—and that food security can’t be fully achieved until those inequities are finally addressed and resolved.
Time: Is there enough time in the day to prepare a healthful meal? Does working unpredictable hours or multiple jobs stand in the way of food choices?
Time is a commodity, and for many of us, a luxury: For those working multiple part-time jobs, or overtime hours, getting food on the table often means relying on convenient (and affordable) options. This is one of the many difficult choices those who experience underemployment or any other aggravating factors of food insecurity have to make—and it really just scratches the surface of the toll of time poverty, particularly for working parents who juggle both long hours and childcare. (13)