Feeding America has estimated that more than 50 million Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020. That statistic represents much more than an economic and nutritional crisis. It’s also a brewing mental health crisis.
Most research on the issue finds that food insecurity is associated with higher levels of depression, stress and anxiety. As a result of the pandemic, food insecurity has doubled in the United States. Among households with children, those numbers have tripled.
Because the effects of food insecurity are cyclical, this crisis will likely impact the well-being of millions of individuals and their families. And the effects will last long after the pandemic’s immediate threat has subsided.
The Effects of Food Insecurity
According to the USDA, a food-secure household has “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Food insecurity isn’t starvation. Instead, access to food is limited and unpredictable. Families with too few resources or no access to grocery stores might rely on inexpensive junk foods, ration portions or skip meals altogether.
Because of the pandemic, millions of Americans found themselves facing reduced work hours or unemployment. Many still worry about where the next meal is coming from. This stress has a severe impact on well-being. In fact, new research indicates food insecurity takes a far more serious toll on mental health than the experience of losing a job.
Many factors help explain why food insecurity strains mental health:
People who experience food insecurity have limited access to nutritionally dense foods. They are more likely to fill caloric intake with fats and refined carbohydrates. This pattern can lead to vitamin deficiencies and chronic illnesses, including diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
Physical problems soon multiply, leading to poor sleep and decreased physical activity. Exercise is an important tool for maintaining mental health, so the odds of depression and anxiety increase as activity slows.
American culture is defined by the ideals of self-sufficiency and independence. Asking for assistance can provoke feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy.
Furthermore, the need to visit public food pantries and meal kitchens makes food security issues uniquely “visible.” In other words, the fear of being seen as vulnerable might undermine mental health. It can discourage individuals from seeking assistance.
Feelings of responsibility
In many cases, people who face insecurity don’t just worry about how to feed themselves. They also feel the burden of providing for family members.
Parents who experience food insecurity are at a high risk for anxiety and depression. Single mothers experience high rates of poverty in the United States. And studies indicate that women may be particularly vulnerable to the mental health impacts of poverty and food insecurity.
The ripple effect
About 17 million (1 in 4) children experienced food insecurity in 2020. Parents try to protect children from its effects, including its impact on mental health. But research shows parental depression and anxiety can often create an unhealthy living environment.
A growing body of research associates food insecurity with domestic violence and trauma. And children who witness domestic violence are more likely to experience long-term negative impacts on well-being.