Food, Food Insecurity and Mental Health: Overview, Index and Resource Guide

by Melissa Gallanter, RD

Prepared by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center 


What is Food Insecurity?

The USDA states that food security—access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life—is one of several conditions necessary for a population to be healthy and well nourished.  (Household Food Security in the United States in 2013 2014) In contrast, food insecurity is “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate, safe foods, or the inability to acquire personally acceptable food in socially acceptable ways.” (Understanding Hunger And Developing Indicators To Assess It In Women And Children 1992). Low food security includes “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet [, with] little or no indication of reduced food intake,” while very low food security includes “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” (Food Security In The U.S.: Overview 2018) 

What is Mental Health?

Defined by the Center for Disease Control, mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. (Learn About Mental Health 2018)

Facts and Data:

  • This year, an estimated 54 million Americans, including 18 million American children, are now food insecure. (The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 2020
  • Hunger Free America found that 37 percent of parents nationwide were cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children in the spring of 2020 because they did not have enough money for food. That means that the current child hunger rate is more than two and a half times the 2019 rate found by USDA. (Pandemic Hunger Crisis 2020)
  • New federal data analyzed by Northwestern University also found that overall food insecurity has doubled, and child food insecurity has tripled, during the pandemic. Across the nation, seven percent of households reported receiving free food during the prior week. (Food Insecurity Remains Elevated Across All 50 States 2020)
  • A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that food insecurity was associated with poorer mental health and specific psychosocial stressors across global regions (149 countries), independent of individuals’ socioeconomic status. (Food Insecurity And Mental Health Status: A Global Analysis Of 149 Countries 2017)
  • The USDA has found that households headed by single women had the highest rates of food insecurity (28.7 percent). USDA also found that adults with disabilities, especially mental health disabilities, have especially high rates of hunger. One in three U.S. households that included an adult who was unable to work due to disability was food insecure in 2009-2010 and an estimated 38 percent of households with the most severe level of hunger included an adult with a disability. (Pandemic Hunger Crisis 2020)
  • Addressing mental health issues such as depression is a potentially important factor in reducing the experience of food insecurity. Directionality of this relationship has not yet been determined (mental health issues may be resultant to the experience of food insecurity, or bidirectional). Holistic approaches to addressing poverty and food insecurity will have the highest likelihood of positively impacting children’s lives and protecting them from food insecurity while enhancing their opportunities to thrive. (A Cross-sectional Exploration Of Food Security, Depression, And Chaos In Low-income Households With Children 2015)
  • Economic hardship occurs among increasingly large segments of the national population, undermining children’s health and well-being and leading to poor adult health, social disparities, and limited human capital…without adequate economic resources, families must make difficult choices among basic needs, such as food, housing, energy, and health care, often resulting in frustration and emotional distress. Emotional distress, frequently manifested as depressive symptoms, increases the number of stressors, interferes with caregiving practices, and adversely affects children’s well-being. (WIC Participation Protects Children From Health Risks Associated With Dual Stressors Of Household Food Insecurity And Caregiver Depressive Symptoms 2012)
  • Consistent with the family stress and cumulative stress models, a relationship between household food insecurity and caregiver with depressive symptoms can undermine children’s well-being. There may be a direct pathway through the lack of adequate food quality and quantity, an indirect pathway through caregivers’ depression or anxiety about low food availability, or a pathway in which household food security is threatened by caregiver depression. Families with both household food insecurity and caregiver with depressive symptoms experience dual stressors, potentially increasing the risk to their young children’s well-being. It is also possible that families of children in poor health may experience economic strain and anxiety, leading to household food insecurity and caregiver depressive symptoms. (WIC Participation Protects Children From Health Risks Associated With Dual Stressors Of Household Food Insecurity And Caregiver Depressive Symptoms 2012)

Table of Contents

Search Engines and Search Terms: 

Searched on Google, Google Scholar, and PubMed with search terms:

  • Mental health + food insecurity
  • Mental health + hunger
  • Childhood mental health + hunger
  • Childhood mental health + food insecurity
  • Disabilities + food insecurity
  • Depression + hunger
  • Depression + food insecurity
  • Anxiety + hunger
  • Anxiety + food insecurity

Organizations and Helpful Resources

Resource Materials and Presentations

General Academic Research Articles on Food Insecurity and Mental Health

Children, Food Insecurity and Mental Health

College Students, Food Insecurity and Mental Health

Adults, Food Insecurity and Mental Health

Women, Food Insecurity, and Mental Health

Countries Outside of the U.S., Food Insecurity, and Mental Health

COVID-19, Food Insecurity, Mental Health

Disabilities, Food Insecurity, and Mental Health

Podcasts on Food Insecurity and Mental Health

News Articles on Food Insecurity and Mental Health

Related Articles

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