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Not Enough to Go Around: The Effects of Food Insecurity on Health

Amid the ever-rising costs of food, Nogales resident Tom McAlpin has come to rely on the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona for the fresh produce he receives. A retired grandfather, McAlpin is raising two children who go through food “like it’s out of style,” so the assistance from the food bank has proven invaluable.

“It’s been a help financially,” McAlpin said. Without it, “we wouldn’t be able to have as much variety as we have, especially with fresh vegetables and fresh fruit.”

McAlpin’s story is not unique in this small US town on the Mexican border, where the poverty rate is twice the national average and hunger issues seem to hit children the hardest. Nearly 1 in 4 Santa Cruz County children under the age of 18 are experiencing some form of food insecurity, putting them at higher risk of anemia, asthma, hospitalization and behavioral and developmental issues. In an effort to manage the problem, the food bank in Nogales serves nearly 400,000 people like McAlpin each month, but the need continues unabated.

“Poverty is a terrible issue in this country and so are the health issues associated with poor nutrition,” said Dana Yost, Director of Sourcing at CFBSA. “Our clients don’t get to shop in the produce aisles of the grocery store, because it’s too expensive for them.”

What Food Insecurity Looks Like in America

Unlike homelessness or poverty which officials measure in concrete terms, food insecurity is more insidious in nature. Characterized by gaps in income or access to healthy foods like fresh produce, food insecurity affects nearly 12 percent of US households, or roughly 40 million people. And despite state and federal support for families with young children, roughly one in six US households with children under 6 still has difficulty affording a balanced meal or is forced to skip meals, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Beyond financial limitations, food-insecure households also lack geographic access to quality food. In low-income neighborhoods, amenities like farmers’ markets or high-quality grocery stores are often less prevalent. And this situation can be compounded by the lack of reliable transportation. Without a car, food-insecure individuals will shop at neighborhood grocers or convenience stores. This means they are more readily accessing shelf-stable, pre-packaged foods that may stave off hunger but fall well short of delivering much-needed nutritional value. These realities can contribute to nutrition related issues such as diabetes and obesity among the food insecure.

Measuring the Impact on Americans
Chalk it up to the increased needs that come with larger families – households with children are 55 percent more likely than childless families to experience food insecurity. And even at marginal levels, food insecurity in western industrialized nations has been linked to emotional, behavioral and academic problems across age groups, according to the Journal for Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics.

Beyond harming individual development, food insecurity also has to the potential to feed a self-perpetuating socioeconomic cycle that impacts future generations. Kids who struggle to receive an adequate diet are less able to appropriately focus and learn in school settings. Over time, this situation can contribute to lower grades. This limits their opportunities to earn better jobs, and ultimately reinforces food insecurity for their own children.

For working age adults, food insecurity contributes to higher rates of disease among adults, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes and kidney disease. In some instances, the Economic Research Service division of the USDA has found food insecurity to be a better predictor of chronic illness than even income.  For policymakers looking to reverse health trends among low-income people, the takeaway is powerful – improve food security and you could improve overall health.

Reinforcing the Infrastructure for Support
Given the high prevalence of food insecurity, it’s not surprising that close to 60 percent of food-insecure households access federal nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and the free and reduced-cost lunch program in schools nationwide. These initiatives are helping individuals and families gain more regular access to fresh produce. This can lead to improved academic performance among school-aged children as well as better health among all recipients.

At the same time, communities across the country are pioneering innovative strategies to combat food insecurity. This includes community and school-based programs like mobile food pantries, learning gardens, farmers' markets, meal budgeting, planning and cooking demos.

In Wisconsin, where food banks rely heavily on donations, Feeding Wisconsin once lacked the adequate refrigerator capacity to manage and preserve incoming produce. Through a $700K grant, UnitedHealthcare was able to help fund the installation of more than 50 new refrigerators to assist with produce distribution and training for volunteers on safe food handling.

The grant dollars will help fund “infrastructure upgrades at pantries throughout the state so that they can actually be on the grid and be able to safely store and distribute all this great product,” explained David Lee, executive director Feeding Wisconsin. The new refrigerators will help serve the state’s 650,000 residents affected by food insecurity.

And in Nogales, a $500K grant from UnitedHealthcare helped the Association of Arizona Food Banks purchase two, new refrigerated trucks. These vehicles are critical for expanding food distribution for the association’s five food banks. These organizations improve fresh food access for more than 350,000 Arizona residents.  For McAlpin, these programs are providing peace of mind.

“When I open up the refrigerator, it’s stacked with everything,” McAlpin said after visiting the community food bank. “It’s a sense of security – we’re grateful for that.”