Medicaid Recipients: A Heightened Sense of Worry Around Food Choices

by Alex Lewin-Zwerdling Vice President, Research and Partnerships, IFIC

One-third of Medicaid recipients say that shopping for food is stressful, compared to just 11% of non-Medicaid recipients. This is according to a new study from a unique partnership between the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC Foundation) and the Root Cause Coalition which surveyed over 1,000 Medicaid recipients’ attitudes and beliefs about food.

The findings from this research underscore the notion that, indeed, hunger is a health issue. Those on Medicaid rate their health worse than non-Medicaid individuals and report increased rates of food insecurity. In fact, over half of Medicaid recipients age 18-34 rate their health as excellent or very good, compared to less than one-third of older recipients. Skipped meals and consuming fewer fruits and vegetables than is recommended is also more common among those utilizing Medicaid. These individuals cite cost and access as the top barriers to eating more of what the Dietary Guidelines recommend, with over 60%  saying that the cost of food is the source of stress they experience while shopping for foods and beverages.

Yet their desired benefits from food, and their motivation for adopting a particular diet, reflect that of the general population. For example, those on Medicaid report most interest in cardiovascular health, weight loss/management and energy from what they eat. Their motivators for adopting a new eating plan or behaviors, similar to other adults, include wanting to feel better and have more energy, weight loss/preventing weight gain, and having more independence in life.

It is clear from these study results that Medicaid participants strive towards improved health yet additional obstacles make it increasingly difficult. Not only are there structural barriers – like cost and access – but also confusion about what to eat. Eighty percent of those on Medicaid report conflicting information about what to eat and what to avoid, and of that 80%, 65% at least somewhat agree that this conflicting information leads to doubt about the food choices they’re making. This confusion is higher still for those with reported higher rates of food insecurity (76% compared to the 65% cited above). This means that the majority of Medicaid recipients with high rates of food insecurity are not sure about what to eat to achieve their health goals, no doubt leaving ample room for increased nutrition education.

This nutrition education would be well served in areas where Medicaid recipients are shopping most frequently, while simultaneously seeking to address some of the top barriers via policy and programmatic initiatives. The IFIC Foundation and Root Cause findings show that the majority are still shopping at traditional supermarkets, that super stores are frequented by over 60% several times a month and that food is purchased from convenience stores by nearly half at least once a month.

Access to nutritious food is a serious barrier, and one that is borne out yet again by these research findings. Half of those individuals on Medicaid with high rates of food insecurity report skipping at least one meal always or often; tough and worrisome choices made by tens of millions of Americans each day.

Alex Lewin-Zwerdling is Vice President, Research and Partnerships at IFIC. In that role she oversees consumer research, tracking the latest in food and nutrition trends, habits, perceptions and other factors that affect what drives America’s eating habits. Alex also develops IFIC’s partnerships across sectors, from food and agriculture companies and nutrition leaders, to public health experts, government agencies and others.