The Politics of Food Access

What is food insecurity and what can we do about it?

No matter your impact space, the last few years have taught us that our causes are interconnected. Researchers are now dealing with what the White House calls “converging crises” across industries. As a purpose-driven organization, we’ve spent years discussing everything from environmental racism and climate change to education and housing. But until recently, we hadn’t yet looked into an issue that’s affected by all of the above: food insecurity.

Food insecurity affects millions of all ages and backgrounds across America, particularly impacting the BIPOC community and hitting kids especially hard after millions have lost access to free school lunches

The pandemic has only exacerbated the fragility of the inequitable American food system. In 2022, the Census Bureau reported a 41% increase in households saying they did not have enough to eat after Congress stopped pandemic relief programs. 

That's over 40 million people who are experiencing hunger—or the fear of hunger—on a regular basis. With rising food and housing costs, that number is only expected to grow. 

What does food insecurity mean?

Food insecurity is the lack of consistent access to enough nutritious food to maintain an active and healthy life. This can include not having enough money to buy food, living in an area without access to healthy food options or experiencing disruptions in food supply due to natural disasters or other crises.

According to Feeding America, the causes of food insecurity are complex and include:

  • Poverty, low income or unemployment
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Systemic racism and racial discrimination
  • Geography and urban planning

The devastating effects of food insecurity

Access to fresh, healthy food is a basic human need and a social determinant of health and wellness. Without equitable access, we see an impact on:

  • Health: Without nutritious foods, people are at an increased risk for chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and mental health disorders—particularly as many turn to cheap, caloric-rich foods in lieu of fresh, prepared meals.
  • Education: Children who experience food insecurity are more likely to have lower academic achievement, be suspended or expelled and suffer from behavioral and emotional problems. 
  • Financial wellness: Food-insecure households often spend over 25% of their income on food, making it challenging to budget other expenses like housing, healthcare, education and utilities. This is more harrowing given that food-insecure households also spend more on healthcare due to their poor diet.

Food apartheid vs food deserts

Words matter. Food deserts and food apartheid are related terms you have probably heard but are distinct concepts.

Food deserts refer to geographic areas where residents lack access to affordable, healthy and fresh food, often due to a lack of grocery stores or other food retailers. These food deserts can occur in both urban and rural areas and affect people of all races and income levels.

Food apartheid, on the other hand, refers to a systemic and intentional form of discrimination in the food system that leads to unequal access to healthy food based on race and income. This terminology recognizes that food access is not simply a matter of geography but a result of historical and ongoing inequities in the food system, including racism, poverty, and systemic inequality. 

There are organizations across most major cities to fight these issues, namely urban farms and dedicated neighborhood markets. However, given the multiple converging crises, issues like food insecurity are often overlooked in favor of more hot-button issues. That’s where all of us can step in.

What can social justice-minded people do to help solve food insecurity?

While food insecurity offers no easy solutions, there are many ways to get involved.

Poverty USA offers some smart systemic change recommendations:

  • Continue to modernize SNAP benefits 
  • Reduce food waste - we throw away 30% of the food we produce
  • Free school lunches for all

Here are a few ideas you can engage with at the individual level:

  • Volunteer at a local food bank or pantry
  • Find your nearest co-op (like Plant It Forward) and volunteer and shop there
  • Call your representative to advocate for policies that support access to healthy, affordable food.
  • Support local farmers and community gardens
  • Educate yourself and others about the causes and consequences of food insecurity
  • Donate to organizations that are working to address food insecurity, such as Feeding America or the World Food Programme

Food insecurity is incredibly complex, but it’s one area we can actually make great progress on as individuals. Supporting these local, fresh food sources improves the entire community’s health—AND it means more delicious, interesting meals on your plate. That’s a win for everyone. 

Katie Laird