Understand Food Insecurity

What are the Connections Between Food Insecurity and Health?

The Hunger in America 2014 survey found that many households served by the Feeding America® network of food banks include people coping with a chronic disease that is impacted by dietary intake. Fifty-eight percent of households have at least one member with high blood pressure and 33 percent have at least one member with diabetes.

The cycle of food insecurity and chronic disease begins when an individual or family cannot afford enough nutritious food. The combination of stress and poor nutrition can make disease management even more challenging. Further, the time and money needed to respond to these worsening health crises drains the household budget, leaving little money for essential nutrition and medical care. This causes the cycle to continue. Many families experiencing food insecurity often have several, if not all, compounding factors which makes maintaining good health extremely difficult.

The brief video below describes how food insecurity impacts chronic disease risk and chronic disease management.

 Illuminating Intersections: Hunger and Health


How do households cope with food insecurity?

Food insecurity is a high stress condition for a person or household. When people do not know where their next meal is going to come from, finding that next meal often becomes their central focus and can take priority over things that are less immediately urgent but still important for one’s health (such as refilling medications, making doctor appointments, and addressing with insurance issues) [i, ii, iii].

According to the Hunger in America 2014 survey, many households who visit charitable food programs make difficult choices in order to meet basic needs. Specifically, households served by the Feeding America network report choosing between:

  • Food and medical care (66 percent)
  • Food and utilities (69 percent)
  • Food and transportation (67 percent)
  • Food and housing (57 percent)

Oftentimes, households must use many coping strategies to meet their food needs. These coping strategies may include:

  • Receiving help from friends (53 percent)
  • Watering down food or drinks (40 percent),
  • Purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food (79 percent)
  • Selling or pawning personal property (35 percent)
  • Growing food in a garden (23 percent)

More than half (55 percent) of all households served by the Feeding America network report having to use three or more coping strategies to deal with tough choices. Some of these coping strategies may help to support one’s health. Others make sense in the short term but can have a negative impact on health in the long term, particularly in households with children and among people who are already coping with a diet-related, chronic disease.

While additional research will allow us to better understand these connections [iv, v, vi, vii], we already know that improved food security is associated with better dietary intake and lower weight. It may also lead to better disease management, lower health care costs and overall better health [viii, ix].

What is the work being done in the charitable food sector?

The charitable food sector, including institutions like food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and feeding programs, are addressing food insecurity while promoting health.

Increasingly, hunger-relief efforts are focused on health-focused initiatives through partnerships, targeted programming, nutrition education, and collective impact and community change. Spotlights of initiatives led by peers in the sector can be found on the the Hunger + Health Blog.


  1. Shah AK, Mullainathan S, Shafir E. Some consequences of having too little. Science. 2012;338:682-685.

  2. Sleek S. How poverty affects the brain and behavior. Association for Psychological Science. 2015. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-poverty-affects-the-brain-and-behavior#.WJkAo9UrKM9. Accessed February 7, 2017.

  3. Mani A, Mullainathan S, Shafir E, Zhao J. Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science. 2013;341(6149):976-980.

  4. Nguyen BT, Shuval K, Bertmann F, Yaroch AL. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food insecurity, dietary quality, and obesity among U.S. Adults. Am J Public Health. 2015;105(7):1453-9.

  5. Hanson KL, Olson CM. School meals participation and weekday dietary quality were associated after controlling for weekend eating among U.S. school children aged 6 to 17 years. The Journal of nutrition. 2013;143(5):714-21.

  6. Gundersen C, Kreider B, Pepper J. The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis. J Econometrics. 2012;166(1):79-91.

  7. Clark MA, Fox MK. Nutritional quality of the diets of US public school children and the role of the school meal programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009;109(2 Suppl):S44-56.

  8. Tarasuk V, Cheng J, de Oliveira C, Dachner N, Gundersen C, Kurdyak P. Association between household food insecurity and annual health care costs. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne. 2015;187(14):E429-36. PMCID: 4592315.

  9. Seligman HK, Bolger AF, Guzman D, Lopez A, Bibbins-Domingo K. Exhaustion of food budgets at month's end and hospital admissions for hypoglycemia. Health affairs. 2014;33(1):116-23. PMCID: 4215698.