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Food Access in the U.S.: The Link Between Food Security and Social Work

January 19, 2023
An infographic providing an overview of food insecurity in the U.S. and addressing the major causes of food insecurity (such as limited economic resources and inadequate access to health care), as well as actions social workers take to promote food security.

Everyone deserves stable access to safe, nourishing food. To learn about the many causes and effects of food insecurity in the U.S., as well as ways that social workers can support individuals, families and communities experiencing food insecurity today, check out the infographic below, created by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Social Work Program.

Understanding the Causes of Food Insecurity

More than 38 million Americans — roughly 1 in 8 individuals — lacked consistent access to healthy food in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What Is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of safe and nutritious foods.

Experts at the USDA and the Coalition on Human Needs understand that food insecurity is a complex phenomenon that can affect individuals and families in different ways and at different times in their lives:

  • Low food security is a USDA term referring to households that experience negative changes in their diet, such as reduced quality or variety of food.
  • Very low food insecurity is a USDA term designating disrupted eating patterns and lower amounts of food eaten by a given household.
  • Cliff effects occur when a household increase in income triggers a disproportionate loss of government assistance (such as supplemental food assistance), according to the Coalition on Human Needs.

All too often, individuals and families must make calculations about taking on more hours at work or reskilling into a higher-paying job, which could threaten their eligibility for supplemental food assistance and other public service programs.

Food Insecurity Affects Individuals, Families and Communities

The number of individuals in food-insecure households increased from 35.2 million in 2019 to 38.3 million in 2020, the USDA reported. That same year, 10.5 percent of all households — and 14.8 percent of households with children — experienced food insecurity.

Food insecurity rates are highest for households with incomes below the poverty line, but people can experience food insecurity regardless of income or life stage. As of 2019, almost 90 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients were from households with children, older adults or adults with disabilities, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Food insecurity also impacts certain populations disproportionately. In 2020, rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average (10.5 percent) among Hispanic (17.2 percent) and Black non-Hispanic (21 percent) populations.

Food insecurity rates increased in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic as households faced unemployment, reduced access to school lunches and interrupted supplies.

What Causes Food Insecurity?

According to research by experts, including Virginia Commonwealth University’s Youngmi Kim, Ph.D., an associate professor of social work, the primary causes of food insecurity include:

Cause 1: Limited Economic Resources

Having consistent access to nutritious foods is often a matter of having the economic security to shop for and buy healthy foods regularly. Various factors can compromise an individual’s or a family’s ability to buy nutritious food, such as:

  • Low household buying power
  • Job loss or life changes leading to a sudden income reduction
  • Co-occurring economic hardship (e.g., stagnant wages, high housing costs, bill payments, medical care expenses)
  • Two-way links between malnutrition and limited economic resources, reinforcing the cycle of poverty

Cause 2: Barriers to Health Care

Food insecurity is also more prevalent among people with illness or injury compared with the general population. These individuals’ health concerns often stem from underlying factors, which may include:

  • Chronic illness
  • Lack of access to health care

Cause 3: Lack of Neighborhood Food

Limited access to quality food stores and suppliers in areas called “food deserts” is another major cause of food insecurity in the U.S.

Food Insecurity Can Happen to Anyone

As Dr. Kim explains, food insecurity tends to follow unexpected life events, such as:

  • Unemployment
  • Change in marital status
  • Health problems
  • Natural disasters
  • Changes in employment or income that make a household ineligible for government assistance

Food Security and Health

Food insecurity affects health and well-being. People experiencing food insecurity often face several compounding factors that make maintaining good health extremely difficult.

  • Poor nutrition: In the U.S., inexpensive, widely available food tends to be unhealthy (e.g., chips and fast food). Families may need to choose between feeding themselves with nutritious foods and paying their bills.
  • Stress: The stress of economic hardship that often accompanies food insecurity is itself a health risk for stroke, heart disease and other illnesses.
  • Delayed medical care: People struggling with food insecurity often experience financial hardship and may need to choose between paying for food and paying for medical care. As a result, they tend to delay medical care, which can worsen illness or injury.
  • Shame and social stigma: People experiencing food insecurity often face social stigma and shame, which can affect mental health and demoralize some from seeking supplemental food assistance, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Food Insecurity Creates Bad Options

People living with food insecurity are often forced to choose between buying food and paying bills — “impossible” decisions that no person should have to make. According to the Brookings Institution, food insecurity may force families to choose between food and:

  • Housing
  • Education
  • Medicine
  • Dental care
  • Heating and cooling
  • Water
  • Internet access
  • Weather-ready clothing

How Social Workers Can Improve Food Security

Social workers support vulnerable populations — including those who experience food insecurity. Fortunately, social workers have a number of strategies they can employ to help improve food access.

Connect People to Food Security Resources

Social workers can expand food security when they:

  • Connect individuals and families with local food pantries and other community resources
  • Provide those in need with information on government assistance programs
  • Support supplemental food delivery systems
  • Help individuals and families navigate cliff effects
  • Provide emotional support for people struggling with the undue stigma surrounding food insecurity
  • Work alongside specific communities who may be at a high risk of food insecurity, such as veterans
  • Advocate for reducing inequities in the food security landscape (for example, low-income, Hispanic and Black households disproportionately experience food insecurity in the U.S.)
  • Call for the expansion of government assistance programs to reduce cliffs
  • Support global efforts to curb rising food insecurity

Expand Access to Food Assistance Programs

Social workers can support clients experiencing food insecurity by connecting them with government assistance programs such as:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • National School Lunch Program
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children

Improving Food Access Through Social Work

Food insecurity affects nearly 40 million Americans, disproportionately impacting low-income and minority households. Their struggles with food access often force families and individuals to make difficult decisions about what they can afford, which can negatively impact their health and well-being.

By connecting them with critical resources and advocating for improved access and better benefits, social workers serve as vital allies for food-insecure individuals, families and communities.

American Action Forum, “Food Insecurity and Food Insufficiency: Assessing Causes and Historical Trends”

Brookings, “Beyond ‘Food Deserts’: America Needs a New Approach to Mapping Food Insecurity”

Brookings, “Delivering to Deserts: New Data Reveals the Geography of Digital Access to Food in the U.S.”

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “A 2022 Review of the Farm Bill: Stakeholder Perspectives on Title IV SNAP Provisions”

Coalition on Human Needs, “Experts: Impending ‘Hunger Cliff’ Could Affect Millions”

Feeding America, What Is Food Insecurity?

Food Research & Action Center, Hunger & Poverty in America

Food Research & Action Center, “To End Hunger, We Must End Stigma”

Frontiers in Public Health, “The Intertwined Relationship Between Malnutrition and Poverty”

Hunger and Health, “Understand Food Insecurity?”

NPR, “Food Insecurity in the U.S. by the Numbers”

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Food Insecurity Among Working-Age Veterans

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Food Security and Nutrition Assistance

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Key Statistics & Graphics

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Measurement

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, National School Lunch Program

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

World Bank, Food Security Update

Youngmi Kim, Ph.D.