I am a little embarrassed to admit this. Here it goes. I came late to the term Food Insecurity. This term is so ubiquitous now in the light of the tragic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every day, reports about food insecurity are rolling off the presses and plastered everywhere, shocking us into disbelief as we equate it with images of endless lines of cars and people awaiting offerings of food donations.
While the experience of lack of food is not new, and though the immensity of the problem came on with a vengeance, we seem to assume that the linking of the words food and insecurity has long been used and understood among the general populace. But has it? And, if so, while I may lag behind on new trendy words like ‘cancel culture’, how did I miss ‘food insecurity’?
Just so we are all on the same page here, the definition of food insecurity has many variations, the first of which appeared in 1990. These include the lack of consistent access to sufficient food for an active healthy life; a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level; a lack of access by all household members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life, which includes as a minimum the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods; and, assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies); and the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. Each meaning contains some complexity, and while similar, the nuanced differences may be significant.
The term was appropriated by the US Department of Agriculture, (USDA) in 1995 when it began collecting data in its attempt to capture the number of food insecure households and the extent of hunger in the nation. In its ensuing efforts to refine its findings, the USDA established two sub-categories: Low food security–the reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake; and, Very low food security–multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. (See chart.) (Hmm, should ‘Gained weight’ also be listed?)
However one wishes to slice it, it is not pretty. In 2018, an estimated 1 in 9 Americans were food insecure, equating to over 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children. It is a lot worse now. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, tracks this data, with information on current impacts documented here.
As a Nutritionist who has concerned herself with helping to adequately and appropriately feed people for four decades, not only should I have been hip to the term sooner, I should have been way ahead of the curve–like one of the first to know. In 1995, I was working for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (or WIC) administered by the USDA. Clearly, I missed the memo of what they were up to–and likewise the nascent term–food insecurity.
My own ignorance came to stare at me with incredulity when in late 2018 my work found me supporting recipients of FINI Program Grants. I understood the program, and it was easy to employ another acronym, but I would hesitate each time I had to recall what FINI stood for. FINI was shorthand for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. FINI Grants were established and written into the 2014 Farm Bill to ‘incentivize’ the purchase of fruits and vegetables by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) recipients.
In 2019, just as I cemented the name of the program into my prefrontal cortex, FINI was changed to the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (or GusNIP). It was renamed in memory of the former Undersecretary of Agriculture who was instrumental in implementing early models of expanding produce purchasing power for low-income consumers and advancing the legislation that authorized the Farm Bill funding. The newly anointed GusNIP retained the nutrition incentive part of its identity but snipped away the food insecurity part. I appreciate the intention of the program and have championed its cause and the grantees who lovingly administer it, but I do take issue with the use of the word ‘incentive’. I’d prefer ‘nutrition support’.
I also came to learn during this time that there was a USDA Food Insecurity Screening Tool or Survey Module too. The original version contained 18 questions but has since had different iterations with variations of ten, six and down to the Hunger Vital Sign’s validated two questions which are:
“Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we had money to buy more.”
“Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.”
Yikes, how did I miss that? Though I find the statement phrasings and category listings a bit odd, I see that it is useful. It can be used for data collection and to identify individuals in need of resources. But why had it taken me so long, just a mere year or two before the pandemic flashed Food Insecurity before us all like a neon sign, to find familiarity with these terms and associated tools? Was insecurity something I applied only to myself while everyone else was knowingly and casually tossing the word around with food? What had I been doing with my many hundreds of clients to figure out what I needed to know to help them?
To make sure I hadn’t just forgotten, I searched all of my 125 blog posts. Before 2018, I had used the term twice. I am pretty sure that means that a year ago when I did a big blog cleanup, I inserted it to make it appear that I was appropriately informed back then. But, this has made me really stop to wonder, how I had functioned without the use of the term and the screening tool.
The answer may be relatively simple. When working in low-income communities, there was not usually much for me to discern in the way of food insecurity–it was the norm–and I generally could identify both levels. While I wasn’t using the USDA’s terms and tools, I had the privilege of time to sit with my clients and to have real conversations about the intimate details of their feeding lives. Sometimes, I employed my own screening tools but the stories I heard informed me of so much more.
Even so, I know some details of my clients’ circumstances did slip through the cracks. I have discussed my limitations here. However, I think my assessments were usually near the mark, but it is tricky. There is not much room for assumptions when guiding anyone’s nutrition path. The space between peanut butter and almond butter is wide and chunky for even those who are food secure. I do feel bad about the time I recommended wild rice to a man who later expressed to me his dismay in regard to its cost. However, that misstep highlights a distinction between prevention and repair in terms of what is required for nourishment. And, it marks how the differences mentioned above in defining food insecurity in relation to just ‘food’ in contrast to ‘nutritious food’ matter.
Also, if ‘active lifestyle’ means toiling to care for families, young children, elders, the ill or disabled–one’s own or other’s–or doing low wage service work or manual labor, then my food-insecure clients were quite active in spite of their food insecurity and waning health. Through it all, my office desk drawer was well stocked with referrals to every food and health support resource and program around–including some I created. And, yet my efforts could not surmount the magnitude of the underlying problems.
So then, what blanket terms was I using if I was not tucked under that of food insecurity? A whole bunch, including poverty, exhaustion, trauma, nutritional violence, food deserts, malnutrition, restrictive and confusing SNAP eligibility regulations and bureaucracy, social services system overload, toxic food culture, racism, exclusions for immigrants, disparities, inequality, high food costs, inadequate wages and a sad story to name a few. I guess I got by. Which might you use?
In closing, I share this telling by Jadon-Maurice Forbes, I Didn’t Drink Water At Dinner as a Poor, Black Kid. Start here. You may then be able to skip all the above. No, really. Please, read it.
Thank you for listening, sharing, following, and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.
Be well. Take care. Stay safe. Let’s heal.
In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Food bought did not last
Could not afford balanced meal
by 37 million Americans