Hunger and Mental Health: The Far-Reaching Impacts of Food Insecurity
Emerson Wiseman, Academic Magnet High School, Charleston, South Carolina, USA
Food is arguably the most crucial of all basic human needs. However, more than 2.3 billion people lacked access to food in 2020, which is 320 million more than in 2019 (Food Security and Covid 19, 2021). Food Insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to adequate and affordable nutrition, has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a combination of reduced income, supply chain issues, and other economic disruptions. The danger of increasing levels of hunger is not strictly physical; food insecurity is correlated with poor mental health, impacting millions around the world.
In Ethiopia, a study done on youth ages 17-21 years old revealed that food insecurity was significantly correlated with mental disorders including those of both physiological (anxiety, depression) and somatic (sleepiness, poor memory) nature (Myers, 2020). This can be attributed to the overlap between one’s mental and physical health: one’s overall wellbeing is dependent upon both physical and mental factors. Because of this interconnectivity, it is difficult to distinguish between the physical and mental effects of food insecurity. This is also true in more developed countries such as Korea, where a study found that Koreans experiencing food insecurity are more likely to report elevated levels of stress and feelings of depression (Chung et al, 2016). Additionally, studies find that food insecurity is more strongly correlated to a poor sense of well-being among people in more-developed nations compared to those in less-developed ones (Frongillo, 2018). This suggests a hedonic adaptation between food insecurity and reported well-being. For people in less developed nations, food insecurity matters less when considering one’s well-being. There are a variety of possible explanations for this, including cultural views regarding relationships to food, a greater number of stressors in developing nations, and the fact that one’s subjective well-being takes the food consumption of one’s peers into account. When one is in a community where food insecurity is common among their peers, they are less likely to weigh that food insecurity as significantly as someone in a community where many of their peers take access to food for granted. These varying perspectives toward the availability of food are crucial to understanding how one may report their well-being in connection with food within varying nations and cultures.
In the United States, the mental health impacts of food insecurity can also be tied to educational outcomes. This is exemplified by the fact that children experiencing food insecurity are significantly less likely to graduate from high school (Stevens, 2015). This can be attributed to the correlation between truancy and food insecurity, with children from food-secure households being 57% less likely to be truant than their food-insecure peers (Tamiru, 2017). A lower high school graduation rate is significant when considering subsequent economic disparities. On average, individuals without a high school diploma will have a lower median salary and an unemployment rate of 5.4%. For high school graduates, the unemployment rate decreases to 3.7% and further drops to 2.7% for those with an associate’s degree (Stobierski, 2020). The connection between food insecurity and adverse educational outcomes highlights a need to further study the issue and identify possible interventions within the educational system.
The mental health consequences of food insecurity are also disproportionately found among minority groups in the United States. In 2019, a study in southern Oregon and northern California found that 92% of Native-American households reported difficulty accessing food (How Hunger Affects Native American Communities, n.d.). One contributing factor may be food deserts that surround many Native reservations. The average resident in the largest Native reservation in the US, the Navajo Nation, must drive three hours for a one-way trip to the nearest grocery store. This distance limits the availability of food for the average resident in a reservation, making access to food a daily stressor. While the relationship between food and mental health is complex, Native and Indigenous Americans have the highest reported rate of mental illness of any single ethnic group in the United States. Other factors, including poverty, political marginalization, and trauma stemming from a history of violence and discrimination are likely contributors, but a lack of food sources is inevitably a daily stressor (How Hunger Affects Native American Communities, n.d.).
Various government programs exist around the world to fight against food insecurity, many broadening their scope with the global COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, the largest domestic nutritional assistance program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), benefiting over 40 million Americans annually. SNAP cost the federal government $68 billion in 2018 with 11% of the nation participating in the program. In April of 2021, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional $1 billion in government food assistance was granted to help an estimated 25 million Americans in very low-income households. India has also increased its food assistance due to the pandemic. The nation is facing a hunger crisis with 90% of respondents reporting a reduction in food intake during the lockdown in 2020, despite India supplying 25% of the world’s total food grain (Masih, 2021). The Indian government responded by increasing its food assistance program to include an additional 11 pounds of rice or wheat per household each month extending into 2022. However, millions in India continue to experience hunger with high unemployment rates following two lockdowns.
As COVID-19 continues to diminish economic and employment stability around the world, the pandemic also threatens to exacerbate the consequences associated with food insecurity. Amid this instability, nutritional aid takes on a greater importance for many. Food is a universal human need, and it is crucial that there is a global effort to alleviate both the physical and mental effects of food insecurity to ensure that the human rights of millions are met.
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