Food insecurity is assumed to be a symptom of poverty. A low income clearly affects access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, right? Of course, but the big picture is more complicated than that.
Since nutrition plays a large role in how we think, feel and interact with the world around us, a diet of calorie-rich and nutrient-poor food could be detrimental to one’s ability to live an active, healthy lifestyle.
The negative effects of food insecurity are present at all stages of life. They are first seen in the development of fetuses under the care of a mother eating a poor pre-natal diet. In an interview, a photographer named Kitra Cahana, described the pre-natal diet of one woman whom she documented for a National Geographic story on suburban food insecurity. She said, “during her pregnancy, all she ate was cereal. That’s all they had in the household, cereal, cereal, cereal. Cereal for breakfast, cereal for lunch and dinner, and you can imagine the impact that kind of a diet has on a growing fetus.”
Then, from a young age children from low-income communities rely on government-subsidized lunches that do not provide their growing brains with adequate nutrients that facilitate learning. These are often made with cheap ingredients that are heavily processed, thus undigestible and toxic to small bodies. Teachers and parents are well aware of how these processed foods, often full of sugar, affect the behavior of their children. It becomes erratic and irrational. These educational and behavioral issues, created by unhealthy food, continue into adolescence.
The rash behavior of malnourished teens can be attributed to unstable blood sugar and hormone levels. As a result, the adolescent period in low-income communities is scarred by high dropout rates, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and violence. Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine prove a lack of Omega-3 fatty acid is associated with “elevated behavioral indices of anxiety, aggression, and depression.”
Ultimately, food insecurity follows people to the grave in the form of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. These diet-related diseases greatly reduce quality of life — physically and mentally.
The catch is: without experiencing a regular diet of nutrient-dense food it is impossible understand how food influences your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Though often said interchangeably, food banks and food pantries are different organizations entirely. Food banks operate as a large food pantry for individual food pantries. There are seven regional food banks that serve specific counties. Food pantry organizers visit regularly to shop for items to stock their shelves.
Food banks receive food from large corporate donors, such as Walmart, from government programs and from frequent food drives. That food is often non-perishable, packaged and processed. Most food banks have a small budget for purchasing fresh produce but it is small. The director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, Clyde Fitzgerald, said “the food banking model of of several decades ago which used to be based purely on quantity of food has evolved to focusing on the quality of the food that is provided. His team works hard to educate the community about what types of food are best to donate to their food drives. With the small amount of money they do receive, from the North Carolina General Assembly and fundraising events, Fitzgerald said, “When we now raise a lot of money to purchase food we purchase highly nutritious food only. We do not purchase candy. We do not purchase drinks. We do not purchase potato chips and things like that. We go for the the highly nutritious products.”
There is one food pantry in Asheville, NC, the YMCA Healthy Living Pantry, that is even farther ahead of this trend: they refuse to stock unhealthy food on their shelves.
Even the Healthy Living Pantry faces the same conundrum of quality versus quantity when they participate in federal school lunch programs. Each weekday during the summer, a pantry organizer drives the YMCA Healthy Living Mobile Kitchen to pick up traditional school lunches from a local public school and transport them to children in housing projects around Asheville.
However, in rural areas, like Eastern North Carolina, there are no healthy pantries. People are separated from grocery stores by miles of fields used to grow corn, soybeans, and hogs. The only establishments dotting the landscape are fast food restaurants and churches.
A pastor of one such church has recognized effects of food insecurity on his congregation and decided to help.
Reverend Richard Joyner is a force. He looks to be in his 40s but is well into his 60s now. He says, “On Monday, Wednesday and Fridays my goal is 500 push ups in day’s time, which is not a lot. The rest of the days I kind of do what I want to do, five miles run try to ride my cycle 200 miles a week.”
Reverend Joyner’s programs have come as a relief to his congregation. However, a researcher, Maureen Berner, in the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is still asking difficult questions about such programs.
Berner studies the invisible network of food pantries that pick up where government programs leave off. Pantries serve individuals who are ineligible for, distrusting of, embarrassed by, or simply underserved by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
When viewing food as a basic human right, Berner says she questions the influence of faith. She gave an example of a potentially uncomfortable situation where “before the distribution everybody holds hands and we all say a prayer together.”
Beyond simply creating uncomfortable situations, it may be a barrier to receiving assistance because religion is uniquely tied to race. She joked, “if you want to ask somebody where you see the highest level of segregation, the common phrase is you’ll see it on Sunday morning.”
This becomes an issue when you compare it to government programs. “There’s not racial preference as to who gets food stamps first. We don’t allow that in our system,” she said.
When viewing food (perhaps even nutritious food) as a human right, any barriers to it are worth investigating.