The data on food security might be ignoring those who need it most, economists say

Craig Gunderson, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois Friday afternoon at “Addressing Food Insecurity in the United States: What We Know and What We Need to Know” in the Advanced Technology Laboratory. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

Many of the people most affected by food insecurity - including the homeless, undocumented immigrants and the disabled - are overlooked by the present body of research, Craig Gunderson, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, said.

While the marginally housed and those who have entered the country illegally can be difficult to contact, it’s less clear why people with disabilities have received so little study, said Gunderson, who spoke Friday afternoon at “Addressing Food Insecurity in the United States: What We Know and What We Need to Know” in the Advanced Technology Laboratory.

“I don’t know why there has been so little work done on disability and food insecurity,” Gunderson said. “Over half of households that have very low food security amongst children have at least one parent or one child with a disability. This is something where I think we have to talk a lot more about disability in general, both mental and physical, but also in relation to food insecurity.”

The reason may be fairly simple, however. According to Richard Dunn, associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Connecticut, data from disabled participants are sometimes thrown out of studies for being “too complicated.”

“It’s not just that we ignore (food insecurity among people with disabilities), we know it’s there, but we kick it out of the studies,” Dunn said.

It’s also unclear whether many of the characteristics associated with food insecurity in the United States, including unemployment, poor health and smoking, are causal determinants of food insecurity or part of the problem, Gunderson said. A person may become food insecure because they are depressed and unable to work, he said by way of example, but being food insecure itself could also be a cause of depression.

A person or family is determined to be food insecure based on an 18-part questionnaire, called the Core Food Insecurity Module, which determines his or her consumption habits over the past year. Someone is considered food insecure if he or she answers yes to three or more questions, such as “I worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more” and “Did you or the other adults in your household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?”

Fourteen percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2014, according to Feeding America.

“Fortunately in the United States, we’re not having children go without food every day. It’s usually episodic, it will be maybe one or two days a month,” Gunderson said. “In neither Canada nor the United States are people dying of starvation, that’s just not happening.”

Poor nutrition, resulting from food insecurity, can still have long term consequences for people’s health. Over 33 percent of food insecure households have at least one member with diabetes, and 66 percent of food insecure households had to choose between medical care and food costs, according to Feeding America.

One food insecurity paradox, Gunderson said, is that while low income people are much more likely to be food insecure, they are also much more likely to be obese. Food insecurity isn’t associated with obesity in children, however, so the relationship between the two conditions is more complicated than the fact that junk food is often less expensive and more accessible than fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.

Jeremy Jelliffe, an agricultural and resource economics graduate student who attended the lecture, said he is concerned that one of the reasons for poor health among food insecure families is that the meals they do consume lack nutritional substance.

“I think we’re kind of discounting that people make bad choices,” Jelliffe said. “Maybe we should just offer people free soylent.”

Gunderson said that while this may encourage people to eat better in the short term, one of the reasons people continue to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known in Connecticut as food stamps, is because it allows them to maintain agency.

“If you impose restrictions on people they're less likely to participate in programs,” Gunderson said.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.