25% of Americans Are Worried About Running Out of Food Right Now— Here's How You Can Help or Get Help if You Need it

Many of us are new to food insecurity but for others it's been a long-term challenge.

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Photo: Getty Images/Enrique Díaz/7cero

These days, things are different. It is no secret that it has been an unprecedented season of economic hardship for many due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, each day more information comes to light about inequity and inequality in the U.S. Hardship manifests itself in many ways, but one that is often overlooked is food insecurity. Food insecurity is not often talked about, especially in the food industry, but it is experienced at alarming rates in the U.S.

You may have heard the term "food desert," "food access" or "food insecurity" before, especially of late as the reliance on food banks and food shelves soars. But what does it really mean? And how can we better understand the root cause to come up with a solution? I dug into the research, and talked with Jessica Jelinski, vice president of equitable access at Feeding America, and Tara Weaver-Missick from the USDA to learn more about what it is and what we can do to help.

What Is Food Insecurity & Who Does It Impact?

Food insecurity is defined as, "The limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways." Or as Weaver-Missick explains, "Food-insecure households had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food [and/or healthy food] for all their members due to a lack of resources."

According to the USDA, food insecurity is measured with two levels of severity—low food security and very low food security. Households that have food, but it's not nutritionally adequate are categorized as having low food security. Other households that don't have enough food to feed the family and the food they have is nutritionally inadequate are categorized as very low food security.

The most recent USDA report on Household Food Security from 2019 found that 11.1% of U.S. households were classified as "food insecure," which is nearly one in every nine. This was down from 14.9% in 2011, which was the peak in recent history as a result of the Great Recession. However, it is probably not shocking to hear that, in the months when the coronavirus hit the hardest, rates of food insecurity increased. The COVID Impact Survey reflected that in the months of April and May of 2020, over 20% of households reported experiencing food insecurity and 25% said they worried about running out of food. The food insecurity brought on by COVID-19 is a clear example of the varying levels of food insecurity and how one life event can quickly have catastrophic impacts on families.

What Causes Food Insecurity?

Jelinski explains, "[Food insecurity] is not an issue that is experienced in isolation. Other issues related to underlying poverty are involved as well. Many families are forced to make trade-offs, including expenses like housing, healthcare, education and more. Over time, this can inhibit a child's ability to learn in school and can lead to chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and more."

Food deserts do not appear overnight, and food insecurity is not a new problem in the U.S. "Some of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are places where the majority of our food is grown," states Jelinski. In Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap study, they found 63% of U.S. counties are classified as "rural," yet these counties experience 87% of our nation's food insecurity. Additionally, in the majority of these communities, at least 20% of the population reported living in poverty for over 30 years. This could be one explanation for why communities of color, specifically Black and Latino people, are disproportionately affected, due to the systemic barriers to resources they have faced.

Some experts do not believe that the term "food insecure" itself is broad enough to encompass what is actually going on. There are several environmental, social and economic factors that play into one's access to food. "Absolutely there is enough food in America to feed the whole country. The issues that cause food insecurity are complex and related to access" says Jelinski. "Beyond access to income and adequate resources, there are additional barriers like awareness [of the programs you may qualify for], physical access [like transportation to food and schedule constraints], stigma [around food assistance programs] and the experience of having to navigate the system."

Also, language barriers, discrimination and whether solutions are culturally appropriate are additional factors that weigh in on the system's effectiveness for those it is designed to serve. This is especially important, considering many people are navigating the system for the first time as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here's How You Can Help

Food access is a big problem, and it's everyone's responsibility. So how do we make a positive impact in our communities and the nation as a whole?

Vote for people who support food access

Jelinski states, "One of the most powerful things we can do is use our voices to advocate for policies and programs that allow for greater food security." Food-related policies are obvious, but other policies, like building of roads and infrastructure, also influence food access, especially in rural communities. Stay informed and use your right to vote in local, state and national elections. Longstanding programs that have a strong research basis, such as WIC and SNAP, are experiencing significant rollbacks with the current administration. Get to know your state representatives and senators, because electing people who make decisions you align with is more important now than ever.

Get involved with your community

Focusing on your community, there are many more tangible ways to get involved and make a difference. As mentioned above, food pantries are overwhelmed with demand in our current climate. Donate food or money if you are able. If you are not, consider donating your time to volunteer, as most food banks and food pantries rely on volunteers for staffing. There are also specific organizations like Feeding America, HEAL Food Alliance and the National Black Food and Justice Alliance that do amazing work and would benefit from your support.

Learn about the available resources

If you or someone you know is having difficulty getting enough food, there are many resources available. Beyond your local food pantry or food bank, programs like WIC and SNAP are meant to supplement one's income and help free up funds for healthy foods. In the summer months, many states have extensions of SNAP called "Double Up Food Bucks." This is an initiative that matches you dollar for dollar when you shop at qualified farmers markets. Not only does this help people gain access to delicious fresh produce, but also it helps strengthen the community's food system.

Bottom Line

Food access is often overlooked in the U.S., but it deserves our attention. As we enter a turning point as a result of a global pandemic, we are in a unique situation where we can take a look at what is working, what is not and how we can be part of the solution. Jelinski put it best by saying, "We can keep feeding people, but at the same time we have to address the root causes [of food insecurity]."

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