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Food Insecurity: What Causes It & How To Address It, From Experts

Abby Moore
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
By Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Image by Natasha Breen / Getty
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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one in nine Americans were food insecure in 2018, which equates to 37 million people. The issue of food insecurity exists globally, though, and it's often a product of systemic and environmental issues. Because of the varied causes of food insecurity, there's no single solution—instead, a holistic approach is necessary for lasting change.

What is food insecurity? 

There are several definitions of food insecurity, but at its core, food insecurity is the inability to access food due to lack of resources or economic limitations. 

"It is important to understand that food insecurity and hunger are not the same thing," says Charles Platkin, Ph.D., J.D., MPH, executive director for the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. "Someone can be food insecure without being 'hungry.' They are not interchangeable."  

The USDA defines food insecurity as "a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to food, while hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity."

What are food deserts?

Food insecurity is often associated with food deserts, or neighborhoods with limited access to affordable and healthful food options. Food deserts are common in cities, where both land for growing food and access to grocery stores are limited.

Even if a city does have a big chain grocery store, it may be 20 to 30 miles from a given neighborhood, says Max Scoppettone, director of research and development of the sustainable environment design firm Plant Group. Since most people living in urban areas rely on public transportation to get around, accessing these supermarkets is inconvenient and may be costly. As a result, they must rely on corner stores or bodegas, which don't always offer fresh or nourishing food.

Although cities are more commonly associated with food deserts, Scoppettone says they can also exist in rural areas.

What about food apartheids?

More recently, farmer and food justice activist Karen Washington began referring to food deserts as food apartheids, to speak to the fact that they are not natural.

"These communities are an effect of social inequality," BB Arrington, certified nutrition coach and sustainability educator, tells mbg. 

This name gets at this unequal way the food system is distributed along racial, geographical, faith-related, and economic lines. In other words, food apartheids are not a product of happenstance. They are a product of the long-standing systemic injustice.

What kind of communities are most affected by food insecurity?

"While the geographical location, areas affected by climate change, natural disaster, and soil degradation are all proponents, our Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected," BB Arrington says. 

According to one 2018 study, structural racism1, or "the totality of ways in which societies foster racial discrimination, via mutually reinforcing inequitable systems," has created both social and economic disadvantages for Black and brown communities. These disparities drive higher rates of food insecurity among racial and ethnic groups.  

"Lack of access to food has a cascading effect: malnourishment, health-related issues due to challenging eating patterns, the call for external medical/nutritional support, which is most often financially out of reach," BB explains. 

Bringing more health food stores into predominantly Black and brown communities won't solve the problem, nor will a single community garden or educational workshops on health, she says. "The greater issues of race, economics, geography, in relationship to the cultures that have been created as a result, need to be taken into consideration."

Climate change also affects access to healthy food.

"The inability to grow due to climate and soil quality is going to cause food insecurity," Scoppettone says. As agricultural land around the world becomes unsuitable for growing certain crops (as a result of extreme weather, shifting precipitation patterns, global warming, invasive pest species, or some combination of all these factors), food injustice issues will only become more pressing.

Traditional large-scale farming is exacerbating these issues by contributing to land destruction and deforestation, polluting water sources, depleting soil health, and lowering air quality.

According to BB, economically challenged communities are usually the first to be affected by these climate factors (see also: environmental racism).

What needs to be done to address these issues?

Clearly, food insecurity issues are complex and systemic. To effectively address them, it's important to consider a combination of short-term, small-scale and long-term, large-scale solutions:

Individual and community solutions.

On a small-scale level, people living in cities can get involved with growing and distributing fresh, healthy food, co-founder of Plant Group Austin Arrington suggests. This may mean volunteering with a community garden or finding space on a rooftop or windowsill to grow food. 

That said, "as much as the small-scale approaches are needed with the community gardens, we shouldn't ignore this larger existing food infrastructure," Austin says, adding education and policy changes are crucial to create sustainable solutions. This means that as an individual, voting in policymakers who have food justice on the agenda is another way to help support change.

Still, "you can't be an outside organization coming into the community and telling them what to eat," he says. Doing so may only fuel mistrust. "You need to build on the existing culture and food cultures that are out there and help support the plant life for those systems." 

Policy and urban planning solutions.

Additionally, many people in food insecure communities already know plants, know food, and know how to cook amazing, healthy meals, Austin says. What they need is access to land. "This is where we need to work with the Parks Department to revive vacant lots and rooftops." Rooftops are the last food frontier, he explains. 

Along with finding access to land, educating younger generations about the more involved processes of agriculture—including water and soil quality testing—can have big impacts down the line and may encourage future careers in agriculture. "I believe in the green collar economy as a practical way to get people working and get good wages while building the sustainable infrastructure that we're going to need for the next hundred years, or however long," he says.

Teaching proper soil management practices and alternative land management techniques, like regenerative agriculture or permaculture, can also help manage (and potentially reverse) the negative impacts of climate change. "It also increases biodiversity of the soil, which is critical for human survival and can be employed on lands unsuitable for other agriculture," functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D., previously told mbg.

These practices, combined with equitable policy, can help create long-term food security and resiliency.

In summary. 

Food insecurity is a lack of access to healthy food. Areas of food insecurity—commonly referred to as food deserts, or more recently food apartheids—are directly related to poverty and most often a product of systemic racism. Climate change and large-scale farming practices can exacerbate the issues of food insecurity by limiting the opportunities to grow nutritious crops. Taking a holistic approach and looking at every side of this complex issue is the only way to create a sustainable solution. 

Abby Moore author page.
Abby Moore
mbg Nutrition & Health Writer

Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.