By: Zamarud Aminy and Jessica Hoff
Food insecurity plays an impactful role in women’s health today, having become a social and health crisis to the public. As defined by Feeding America, “food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. This can be a temporary situation for a family or can last a very long time. Food insecurity is one way to measure how many people cannot afford food. According to the USDA, more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, experience food insecurity in the United States” (Feeding America 2022). There are numerous determinants as to why food insecurity prevails in women’s health; one being socio-economic instability. Although the discussion around food insecurity encompasses a variety of health and social factors, these health outcomes are impacted by measures of how people live, which display the underlying conditions rooted in systemic institutions. Some of these conditions involve the historic imprint left by gender inequality and lack of women’s rights. In this blog post, you will acquire knowledge specific on how food insecurity affects women’s quality of life, thus, emphasizing the importance of accessible, healthy foods as a contributing social determinant of women’s health.
Women’s experiences with food insecurity have often been associated with an uneven distribution of food, socio-economic instability, and gender inequality. In light of this, there are countless socio-economic conditions that have led and continue to lead to food insecurity in women including acts of domestic violence, lack of education and resources, as well as belonging to low-income households. In the U.S., female-led households who are single parents are at 30.2% higher risk of experiencing food insecurity in comparison to the 11% general population (Tanya Lawlis and Maggie Jamieson, 2016). The lack of accessible and healthy foods adversely affects a woman’s daily diet, thus resulting in subsequent health consequences that can even impact women who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Healthy eating involves the intake of nutrients from a variety of food groups. In most cases, even if food is accessible, food security still requires adequate nutrients that come from the meal. These vitamins consist of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium, and vitamins A and C. Because women’s health also includes aspects of maternal health, it is important to acknowledge nutrition in respect to prenatal health. Prenatal nutrients enable a woman’s body to maintain a safe and healthy pregnancy. One example involves folic acid; a primary supplement needed in order to help prevent major neural tube defects such as Spina Byfida and Anencephaly in the growing embryo.
Therefore, not only can food insecurity negatively impact the growing infant, but also maternal health. Other underlying factors can include gestational diabetes during pregnancy, difficulty with food preparation, and financial strain due to time away from the workforce (Laraia et al., 2006). These components often accompany challenging long-term care for the child and mother- not limited to chronic illness, poor coping skills, and maternal depression.
According to California’s Maternal and Infant Health Assessment postpartum survey assessing income levels and hardships before or during pregnancy, about 35% of poor women and 20% of near-poor women align with the criteria to be food insecure (Braveman et al., 2010). It is important for food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC to be aware of nutritional guidelines to effectively address food insecurity and provide quality dietary meals for women so they can maintain healthy pregnancies, post-partum and post-natal care. Additionally, health implications from food insecurity include increased risk for chronic disease, depressive symptoms, and lower subjective well-being (Tanya Lawlis and Maggie Jamieson, 2016). Nutrient deficiencies and a lack of food from diverse food groups can worsen medical conditions. In the long term, this can affect the family dynamic as a whole, beyond the individual level.
Besides physical hunger and inaccessibility to food, researchers have demonstrated that there are countless social and psychological ramifications of food insecurity on women’s quality of life. Studies conducted in the U.S. and Canada that established the association between food insecurity and psychological outcomes have prompted researchers to investigate the role of food insecurity in intimate partner violence (IPV). For example, a study by Tolman and Rosen examined the link between IPV and material hardships such as eviction, homelessness and household food insufficiency (whether the respondent’s family had enough food to eat) among 753 women who were current welfare recipients in Michigan. One-quarter of that sample reported having experienced physical violence in the 12 months prior to interview and nearly two-thirds reported physical violence during their lifetimes (Tolman and Rosen 2001).
Among the women who reported more severe abuse (51% of the sample), the investigators compared recent reporters (abuse in 12 months prior to interview) and past reporters, and found that 35.7 and 26.5 %, respectively, reported food insufficiency in the past year. The results of this study presented a principal correlation between food insufficiency and domestic violence. Due to these correlations, we see that survival-living and healthy-living are two separate concepts for women who are experiencing violence. Thus, this exemplifies the difficulty in maintaining a healthy lifestyle when there is this shift of focus, instead, in preserving a safe environment in order to survive.
Another aspect of food insecurity is gender inequality, which is often associated with the burden of responsibility, violence, and discrimination. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity rates for households with children headed by a single mother (30.3%) and for women living alone (14.7%) are at a high, in comparison to nuclear family households(9.2%) of being severely food-insecure. Single mothers and women living alone may be facing barriers that prevent them from taking action to overcome food insecurity. This can be due to high expenses of healthy food, lack of access to grocery stores, lack of proper health education, and most likely having to allocate their paychecks to other costs of living, such as various payments related to health, living, education, and/or transportation. This drives mothers to feel the need to prioritize their children and family’s needs first and in turn, neglect their own wellbeing. It is common for mothers facing these challenges to have feelings of guilt, which oftentimes disturb their mental health. Overall, the lack of support for single mothers or women living alone develops into strenuous living conditions that obstruct the route towards maintaining a healthy and productive quality of life.
In conclusion, we have read about the countless factors involving food insecurity and women and that many of these injustices are the results of a historical system that is based on gender inequality, socioeconomic disparities and lack of proper and resourceful support to women in need. Additionally, we have gained perspective on part of what makes food insecurity so difficult to solve because it consists of underlying root causes that many women are unable to voice. Moving in and out of food insecurity creates more stress to a household that may already be battling with instability and unpredictability. There is still a long way to go, in regards to shedding light on the topic of food insecurity and women’s health. Therefore, let’s continue to educate ourselves and those around us on the subject at large and aid in the fight against food insecurity and women’s health.
Ricks, J., Cochran, S., Arah, O., Williams, J., & Seeman, T. (2016). Food insecurity and intimate partner violence against women: Results from the California Women’s Health Survey. Public Health Nutrition, 19(5), 914-923. doi:10.1017/S1368980015001986
Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2022). Household Food Security in the United States in 2021. Economic Research Report. https://doi.org/No. (ERR-309) 51 pp
Fong, Sarah Gupta, Jhumka Kpebo, Denise and Falb, Kathryn 2016. Food insecurity associated with intimate partner violence among women in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, Vol. 134, Issue. 3, p. 341.
Breiding, Matthew J. Basile, Kathleen C. Klevens, Joanne and Smith, Sharon G. 2017. Economic Insecurity and Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Victimization. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 53, Issue. 4, p. 457.
Dailee, Aria. 5 Solutions That Alleviate Food Insecurity in the U.S., Heated, 7 Dec. 2022. heated.medium.com/5-solutions-that-alleviate-food-insecurity-in-the-u-s-767ba03fcb94.