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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

Dissecting Food Insecurity and the Stigma Against Reaching Out for Help

Written by Laila Gad

Edited by Sanjana Ahmed

Food is multifaceted; it provides comfort, re-energizes our minds, bridges people together despite their differences, and alleviates household stress by satiating hunger. Yet, even with its high importance as a human right for all, 10.5% (13.8 million) of American families faced food insecurity and lived with the fear that they would end up going hungry in 2020. The reason behind this common and sadly normalized occurrence of hunger in America is multifaceted, ranging from mismanagement of food sources to overproduction and excessive food loss.

Almost 30-40% of the food supply in America ends up in the trash due to a plethora of reasons ranging from people misinterpreting the expiration dates to overproduction of fruits and vegetables. These include:

  1. People can’t read expiration dates: 80% of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misread the expiration dates by throwing things out by the sell-by date.

  2. Overproduction of goods that consumers don’t need: The USDA approximates that 15 billion dollars worth of fruit is lost every year in unsold fruits and vegetables.

  3. Loss in the Manufacturing Facilities: In light of COVID-19, many workers fell ill, resulting in facilities closing down and the food being discarded in large amounts (like meat).

  4. It isn’t researched well enough: Consumers want to take action against food waste, but there isn’t enough data or guidance from governmental agencies on next steps.

At its roots, food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food to maintain a healthy life. Food insecurity exists on a scale, and unlike common misconceptions, isn’t reserved for only the impoverished. Households are sorted into four levels of food security: 1) High Food Security, 2) Marginal Food Security, 3) Low Food Security, 4) Very Low Food Security. While commonly associated with poverty, food insecurity can affect families above and below the poverty line. Food insecurity typically develops after a family pays for their basic necessities (like rent and taxes) and uses any extra money for groceries. In NYC, one out of every three children are experiencing food insecurity, a 64% rise from pre-pandemic levels.

Food insecurity is also a social determinant to health, which is a condition in the place where people are born, live, and learn that affects a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes. Growing up in a household plagued with food insecurity can leave children with feelings of embarrassment at school and lack of deserving of food, which can linger into adulthood. Food insecurity isn’t an isolated experience, and is usually accompanied by housing insecurity, social isolation, and health issues.

While there are many completely free food resources (such as community fridges and food pantries and banks), a significant amount of families experiencing food insecurity do not use them, with as little as 38% of food insecure students using the services reported in a Nutrients Study. Reasons for this include plain ignorance of the resources, but mainly, there is great hesitancy amongst families towards seeking free food resources, especially in a country where welfare and SNAP benefit holders are shamed and looked down upon. This stigmatism against receiving help furthers the idea that using free food resources is “embarrassing.”

Combating food insecurity does not have to begin from the top; you can go out to local grocery and ask them for food they are about to throw out because of their “sell by” date or you can start by delivering food to your local community members through meals on wheels. Bottom line is, by getting information out there and making using free food resources normalized, food insecurity (and ultimately societal health issues) can decrease as a whole.



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