What You Need to Know About Food Insecurity

Feb 8, 2024 | by Syed Adib

Understanding Food Insecurity

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a household's economic and social condition, characterized by limited or uncertain access to adequate food. It's important to distinguish this from hunger, a physiological condition often—but not always—resulting from food insecurity. A household may face food insecurity without experiencing hunger, and vice versa. This issue frequently affects those in lower-income households.

Anyone from any socioeconomic background can face food insecurity but it usually affects people of low-income backgrounds and minorities the most. USDA splits food insecurity into four levels. They are:

  • High food insecurity
  • Marginal food insecurity
  • Low food insecurity
  • Very low food insecurity

The health implications for people who find themselves in the low and very low food security levels are especially concerning. Although the mission of The Salvation Army is to serve all who come through our doors, these last two groups are most often the ones who line up outside our soup kitchens and food pantries.

Cause of Food Insecurity

The New York City Council and Feeding America identify several primary causes for food insecurity, including poverty, unemployment, unaffordable housing, high healthcare costs, and inadequate access to assistance programs like SNAP. Poverty and unemployment can restrict access to supermarkets, forcing reliance on local convenience stores that charge higher prices and have less variety of food items. Unaffordable housing diverts finances away from nutrition, and chronic health conditions can strain budgets, making food a secondary priority. Discrimination exacerbates these issues, with marginalized communities facing systemic barriers to resources.

One of The Salvation Army’s patrons who encapsulates these hardships is Eric, a 71-year old retiree who visits our soup kitchen daily. Eric depends on supplemental income from government programs such as Social Security and SNAP to purchase groceries. However, due to the recent cuts, he has struggled to buy necessary food items and survive on his meager income. Consequently, Eric has become more reliant on charitable organizations such as The Salvation Army and our soup kitchens and food pantries to meet his dietary needs.

He has expressed to our staff that it is a great relief that he has support in his community that provides him a lunch and a food pantry with different food items, including canned goods, frozen meats, and fresh produce to eat at home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The Vicious Cycle of Poverty and Food Insecurity

A 2022 study by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlighted the vicious circle that many beneficiaries of SNAP and other government-provided supplemental income sources find themselves in when facing food insecurity. The study conducted surveys of residents living in one of New York City’s most impoverished communities, East Harlem. According to the study, 23% of residents, live in poverty and 48% pay more than 30% of their income on housing. The perpetual cycle highlighted in the study is one in which participants frequently found themselves food secure at the beginning of each month when a supplemental check arrived, but getting more food insecure as the month went on due to dwindling funds from paying off rent or medical bills. Towards the end of the month, participants often found themselves going to food pantries to get fresh produce; buying more shelf-stable items such as pasta or canned foods; reducing the amount of food they ate or cutting down on the number of meals; or implementing strategies such as rationing out their fresh produce so that they had enough to last them until the end of the month. This study showed how in dire circumstances, participants tried whatever they could to overcome the hardships of food insecurity. The Salvation Army tries our best to assuage these problems as well and we have made remarkable progress, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19 which exacerbated them, through our soup kitchens and food pantries. In 2023, The Salvation Army provided 89,866 hot meals, 50,604 snacks, and 9,379 bags of groceries to the Harlem community.

Food Insecurity's Impact on Children

Nutritional deficiencies due to food insecurity during formative years can lead to deterioration of cognitive abilities, a weakened immunity, and chronic health conditions. These challenges can extend far into adulthood, resulting in lower lifetime earnings. According to 2021 food insecurity data from Feeding America ,child hunger costs America $28 billion a year because poorly nourished children perform worse in school and require more long-term health care spending.

How is The Salvation Army Combatting Food Insecurity?

The intersection of poverty, health, and food insecurity poses a significant challenge. The experiences of New Yorkers like Eric and the participants in Harlem study underscore the dire need for systemic solutions to ensure access to nutritious food for all, particularly for those most vulnerable in our society.

All 38 community centers that are owned and operated by The Salvation Army in Greater New York provide groceries and we operate 18 soup kitchens. Thousands are fed daily at our community centers, including the most vulnerable – underserved children in our After-School Programs, the elderly at our Senior Programs, unhoused neighbors, survivors rebuilding their lives after a disaster, and more. Our approach to solving hunger is formed based on the local needs of each community we serve. We strive to provide a variety of healthy foods and basic-need items for those seeking food assistance and to help them regain household food security. According to our 2021 Annual Report, we served 4,324,694 meals to New Yorkers. In our 2022 Annual Report, this number increased to 5,494,738 meals!

With New York’s high cost of living and an increasing inflation, more people are in need of food security than ever before.

Donate today to help us end food insecurity.

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