Food Insecurity: A Rising Issue of Concern

What is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is a lack of accessibility and affordability of food for a household. Food deserts, food waste, and economic crises all contribute to rising food insecurity rates. The people experiencing food insecurity will then have physical, mental, and emotional health consequences. 

Houston

In the greater Houston area, 16.6% of households reported uncertain or limited access to nutritious food in 20201. This includes 500K+ Houstonians living in “food deserts” with little to no access to healthy food1. The USDA has classified at least ten neighborhoods as food deserts, including Second Ward, Greater Fifth Ward, East End, Galena Park, Channel view, East Houston, Aldine Westfield, Acres Homes, parts of Bellaire, Southwest Houston, Sunnyside, and Central Southwest1.

As well as the 1.1 million people in the Houston Food Bank total service area that are categorized as food-insecure, while the food bank ends up serving about 800,000 families in an average year2. Houston Food Bank’s Chief Impact Officer Nicole Lander says these numbers have doubled due to Covid-192. For example, the Houston Food Bank distributes 1 million pounds of food a day compared to 400,000 pounds of food a day pre-Covid-192. 40% of the households served by the Houston Food Bank have Type 2 diabetes or heart disease, showing inaccessibility to healthy food2

African Americans and Latinos rates for food insecurity are higher than their representation in the general population of Texas7. 48.4% of Texas Latinos are food insecure as of January 2021, while they only make up 36.8% of the population7. 14% of African Americans in Texas are food insecure, making up 11.8% of the population7

Impacts on Health 

With more families in financial crisis, children in food-insecure homes have increased from 1 in 4 to 1 in 32. This means that without access to affordable healthy food, childhood obesity rates are likely growing, increasing their risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem3.

Food insecurity amongst adults not only impacts short-term health problems but can lead to lifelong chronic illnesses5. For example, lower nutrient intakes are associated with long-term conditions including hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and even cancer5

According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, nearly half of adults age 50–80 who were food insecure rated their physical health as fair or poor (45%), compared to 14% of those who were food secure4. 24% of those who were food insecure reported fair or poor mental health compared to 5% of those who were food secure4. Furthermore, 43% of older adults who were food insecure rated their diets as being fair or poor quality compared to 20% of those who were food secure4.

Impacts on the World

According to Second Servings, food waste is a significant contributor to climate change6. Food is the largest component in the landfill at 21% and emits extremely potent methane gas contributing to more greenhouse gases worsening the degradation of our ozone layer, and speeding up effects of climate change (increase temperatures and water levels)6. This food waste increases food insecurity rates, because according to the World Food Programme the agricultural productivity losses due to increased temperature are estimated to induce hunger and malnutrition rates up 20 percent by 20506. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans waste 30-40% of the available food at the consumer and retail levels which costs our economy $218 billion each year6

Local Organizations Working to Reduce Food Insecurity

Nonprofits like the Houston Food Bank, Interfaith of the Woodlands, Target Hunger, West Houston Assistance Ministries Food Pantry, Heights Interfaith Ministries Food Pantry, Kids’ Meals, and Second Servings all work to get people much-needed food. Many nonprofits realize that this food can not just be any food. It helps for it to be healthy, nutritious food. For example, Second Servings saw many healthy meals go to waste at events and came up with a solution of refrigerated trucks to transport those meals to food-insecure populations6

Conclusion

Food insecurity in light of the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the most prevalent issues we face as a society. Food insecurity does not just affect someone that is experiencing homelessness; many families experiencing economic hardship are struggling to afford healthy food2. People need the knowledge of where to go to get food; for example, you may call your 211 to find resources near you. However, our communities must come together to fight food insecurity as a broader issue as well. Food deserts and food waste need to be eliminated or at least reduced. 

1“500K+ Houstonians live in ’food deserts’ with little to no access to healthy food and the problem has worsened due to COVID-19.” 

2 “Houston Food Bank: COVID-19 pandemic amplifies already high food insecurity across region.” 

3 “Childhood Obesity Causes & Consequences.” 

4“How Food Insecurity Affects Older Adults.” 

5 “Food Insecurity Is Associated with Chronic Disease among Low-Income NHANES Participants.”

6“Fighting Hunger. Ending Waste.” 

7“Visualizing Food Insecurity.” 

Protecting Our Protectors: Mental Health and the Police

Police officers are tasked with keeping our communities safe. In their training, they learn both how to be in shape for the job, but also about local and state laws, protocols, human psychology, safety, and basic medical knowledge1. All of this is to ensure the safety of themselves and their community.

But putting their lives on the line comes at a cost, including experiencing a wide variety of mental health issues like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression2. This is because while their training can prepare them abstractly how to handle a car accident, nothing can prepare them for the emotional toll they actually experience. Police officers are often also first on the scene for other mass casualty events and murders2.

Many times police officers have a persona of toughness and strength, but just because they can handle a tragic situation does not mean their mental health isn’t suffering because of it2. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in four police officers has considered committing suicide3. This is four times the rate for firefighters3. What’s most startling, however, is that more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty3

Within our own Texas Police Department, one out of four officers has symptoms of depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and/or anxiety4. Only 20% of those officers seek treatment4. After reporting these findings, researchers for the JAMA network (a medical journal published by the American Medical Association) suggest mental illness needs to be identified systematically, so police officers can then be referred to the healthcare services they need4

So what has been done to help?

It’s important to note that most police officers fear if they are deemed “mentally unhealthy,” they will face suspension or lose their badge2. This fear causes police officers all over the country to go without mental health services. This might explain why only 20% of Dallas-Fort Worth police officers experiencing mental illness symptoms sought treatment4

Additionally, the image of police officers being “tough” and “strong,” makes it hard to have mental health awareness for them as a group even if the statistics show they face a very stressful and traumatic job. Those who do seek treatment, feel like the mental health specialists can not relate to them and what they’ve been through4

These issues in awareness, access, and treatment have led to certain strategies to address police officers’ mental health, which includes increasing awareness of police officers’ mental health issues, connecting police officers with mental health professionals,  and peer support groups. 

National Association of Police Organization’s Director William Johnson says “unions have been at the forefront of seeking to provide mental healthcare for their members4.” This involves creating “peer support units,” that serve to offer counseling to officers dealing with mental health issues4.

These peer support units help create awareness and conversation on mental health issues of police officers. They are important long term because those who had been in law enforcement longer (5-15 years) were three times as likely to have positive screenings for symptoms of mental health disorders4. Working in the field for over 15 years led to a seven-fold increase in the chance of a mental health illness diagnosis5

These statistics themselves are important for bringing awareness to the mental health of police officers. They come from a study first in its kind “to analyze mental illnesses, symptoms of mental illness, and mental health care use among officers at a large, urban police department.6” In focus groups, officers admitted to feeling “numb” to traumatic events6. They are unaware of the impact their experiences of working in law enforcement have on their mental health, so they might not seek treatment6

What’s next?

More studies like the one from the JAMA network need to be done to bring awareness to the mental health issues associated with working in law enforcement. To tackle the fear of losing jobs over a mental illness diagnosis, there must be greater trust between officers and police administration5. This could be peer groups offering confidentiality amongst coworkers first or contracting an independent mental health agency to screen police officers for mental health symptoms5.

Sources: 

  1. “Police Academy Training – What You Need to Know”
  2. “Mental Health Statistics: Police Officers”
  3. “Law enforcement”
  4. “25% of police officers have symptoms of mental health disorders, study finds”
  5. “How Often Do Cops Seek Mental Health Services?”
  6. Prevalence of Mental Illness and Mental Health Care Use Among Police Officers