Food insecurity is a rampant problem across the country. About 1 in 8 households are food insecure, which is, fortunately, down from previous years, but we have a long way to go to make sure that all Americans have food security. What does food insecurity mean, anyway? There are varying degrees of food insecurity. In some cases it means that finding and affording food is a source of anxiety or that someone’s diet is restricted or undesirable because of low income. However, food insecurity may also mean that food intake is reduced or that someone or a family goes hungry one or more times a year due to the inability to afford or access food.
We spent some time talking to Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank, about food insecurity. Susannah was the executive director for the Food Bank of Alaska for more than a decade before she moved to Oregon, and she also serves on the National Council of Feeding America, the national network of food banks. At the Oregon Food Bank, Susannah has focused on getting more fresh food into food insecure households and emphasizing nutrition education.
What is food insecurity? Is it different from hunger?
Susannah Morgan: Food security is, in the USDA definition, consistent, dependable access to enough food for an active healthy life. Food insecurity is the absence of this condition, which can take the form of worrying about where your next meal is coming from or eating less healthy food or less variety. Hunger is generally disrupted food intake, or missing meals.
What are some of the factors that contribute to food insecurity?
SM: Well, poverty is the main contributor to food insecurity – you don’t have enough financial resources to take care of your needs, like housing, transportation, and medical needs, so you skimp on food. But poverty itself has a root cause in systemic inequities, such as patterns of racism, sexism, and ableism, which explains why people of color, single mothers and those with disabilities are overrepresented among people living in poverty. And then there are skill-based factors, such as food literacy – having the skills to stretch a small amount of food for several meals, for instance – or gardening.
Has food insecurity increased or decreased in recent years?
SM: Food insecurity spiked with the great recession and is slowly coming back down. To quote the USDA, the 2016 prevalence of food insecurity (12.3%) was still above the 2007 pre-recession level of 11.1%.
What are some of the ways that food insecurity can affect other areas of someone’s life beyond the dinner table?
SM: Psychologically, many food insecure individuals struggle with social isolation and depression. Physically, diabetes or high blood pressure are often the results of eating less nutritious food or a smaller variety of foods. Then there is the inability to concentrate in school or work, leading to poor performance at school or on the job. Another problem that can arise from a non-diversified diet is micro-nutrient deficiencies, such as iron-deficiency. Alone or combined with the stress of worrying about having enough to eat, these deficiencies can lead to frequent illness.
Beyond just giving people food, what are some ways that food banks assist those experiencing food insecurity?
SM: That depends on the food bank! “Food bank” usually refers to the wholesale charitable food distributor – for example, Oregon Food Bank collects truckloads of food, distributes this food to partner agencies such as food pantries or soup kitchens that serves hungry people. The partner agencies offer a variety of services in addition to food, such as shelter, counseling, and referrals.
In addition to food collection and distribution, some food banks, like the Oregon Food Bank, also support skill-building programs in cooking, nutrition, and gardening for low-income people. We also have a robust public policy advocacy program, in which we work to change the systems that cause people to be hungry in the first place.
What is the best way for the average person to help their local food bank in assisting those experiencing food insecurity?
SM: Give funds rather than food. We can access a lot more food with your money than you can. If you are a farmer or, for example, have a few apple trees that produce more than you can use, give food you grow. Give time by volunteering. And don’t forget advocacy – call your elected officials and ask for their support of nutrition programs like SNAP.
As Susannah says above, there are several different ways you can give to food banks. Get in touch with your local food bank and ask what their greatest needs are, which might not always be food. The greatest gift you can give might be your time.
Megan’s abiding passion is culinary arts. Her career in food began on a small farm, transitioned to extensive food and cooking research, and finally led her to working for the iconic cookbook, the Joy of Cooking and with natural food brands across the country in her role at HEART: Creative Culinary Agency.