Food insecurity is a lack of access to culturally appropriate food, which is safe to eat, in order to uphold an active and healthy life and is a problem which is seen globally. For example, even though the United States of America is economically prosperous, almost 15% of its population are food insecure.
Another issue that the United States experiences is that of obesity, with around 1 in every 3 adults in the United States being obese. As a result, these individuals put themselves at a higher risk of negative health consequences such as coronary heart disease and premature death.
Logic would imply that these two issues within the United States are totally unrelated, as it may make more sense that those who cannot afford adequate food would be underweight, and therefore that obesity would be associated with excessive food intake. So how can these two issues be related, and how can they be solved together?
Lacking adequate food, but still overweight
The relationship between obesity and food insecurity has a fairly simple explanation; people who are food insecure are generally poorer than those who are not, and those who are food insecure therefore purchase cheap, high-energy, high-calorie, low-nutrient food in order to keep them fuller for longer. Overconsumption of these low-nutrient foods results in obesity, which is easily done due to them being so calorie dense (they have more calories per gram than in healthier foods). Consequently, this food insecurity experienced in the United States is more about too many, rather than too few, calories being consumed. Money is therefore required to maintain a healthy weight within the United States, as healthier food is much more expensive than calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods.
The dilemma that those who are food insecure is easy to understand, as, in my local Tesco, in order to buy the ingredients to make a 5 ingredient Jamie Oliver sausage bake for 4 people I would need to spend £8.10. Whereas to buy 4 pizzas for 4 people, I would only have to spend £2.68 and because the pizza is more calorie dense (containing 766 calories per pizza) than the other ingredients put together in the sausage bake (working out at 571 calories per portion), it would therefore make me feel more full more easily.
How can this problem be solved?
Issues of food insecurity and obesity have attempted to be solved through programmes such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP). SNAP is the largest food assistance programme in the United States, serving over 47 million people in 2012. The programme provides benefits based upon the number of people within a household, as well as the income of that household. These benefits are put on a card which can only be used to buy certain food, with alcohol, tobacco, dietary supplements and pre-prepared foods not being able to be purchased with this card.
SNAP changed its name in 2008 from the ‘Food Stamp Programme’ in order to reduce the stigma surrounding the programme, as well as to try and have a greater focus upon the nutrition that its participants were getting and to promote healthful food choices, thus trying to solve the issue of food insecurity and obesity at the same time. Efforts were made to restrict unhealthy and ‘junk’ foods from SNAP, as the Institute of Medicine understood that due to the scale of SNAP, it would make sense to improve the nutritional impact which the programme has in order to address the obesity epidemic, especially as so many of the participants are obese. However this was rejected by the US Department of Agriculture due to concerns that it would further stigmatise the programme and those who are a part of it, as well as discriminating against them. It would also single out SNAP users by making it seem that they are the only members of the population who are irresponsible with their grocery shopping and that this therefore needs to be controlled in some way.
The programme was therefore not restructured and thus remains largely the same, with participants still able to buy most food and beverages. Therefore, even with this greater source of income to be able to purchase more nutrient-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables, due to a lack of education and restrictions, SNAP participants are more likely to buy more low-nutrient foods, such as processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages, rather than improving dietary behaviours and reducing total energy intake through this greater spending power. Greater education through the SNAP system would enable the participants of the programme to understand that it is of great importance to purchase less food, but with a higher nutrient intake, in order to be able to sustain an active and healthy lifestyle.
Not only has the programme failed to educate its users around the nutritional value of foods, obesity has also been linked to this food programme. The benefits are given out on a monthly cycle, with a large portion of these benefits being spent in the first week of them being given out (as can be seen in this graph). As a result, in several cases binge eating occurs at the start of the month when the benefits are given out, followed by periods of starvation towards the end of the month, which encourages fat accumulation in a persons body and therefore increases the likelihood that they will become overweight.
Therefore it is problematic to try and solve the issues of food insecurity and obesity together within the United States, due to the discrimination and stigmatisation which would occur as a result. However, due to the multiple negative impacts that obesity can have upon health, it is important to try reduce the relationship between the two and to think increasingly about the ways in which this can be done.