What Financial Practitioners Need to Know About Food Insecurity

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, AFC® boneill@njaes.rutgers.edu

The term “food insecurity” is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.” While food insecurity is related to hunger (i.e., many food insecure people go hungry), it is a different concept. Feeding America describes the difference this way: “hunger is a personal, physical sensation of discomfort” (e.g., growling stomach, lack of focus) while food insecurity “refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level.”

Child eating cereal
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

According to Feeding America, about 1 in 9 Americans were food insecure in 2018. This equates to over 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children. Food insecurity affects people of all ages, ethnicities, and geographic locations. The USDA groups food security (i.e., access to food) into four distinct levels based on a household’s experiences around securing food: very low, low, marginal, and high food security. Households with low and very low food security are considered food insecure.

A related term is “food deserts,” which are areas where access to healthy food (e.g., fresh fruits and vegetables) is limited or nonexistent because supermarkets are a distance away. Without access to healthy food, it is difficult to prepare healthy meals, which can result in nutrition-related chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. An estimated 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts. A map of the United States that is periodically updated by the USDA shows the location of food deserts across the country.

What can financial educators and counselors do about the problem of food insecurity? Plenty. Below are five ways that practitioners can assist food insecure individuals and families such as clients and pro bono clients:

  • Find Food Resources– Learn about sources of free or low-cost food in your community and their location (e.g., SNAP and food banks and pantries) to refer clients to. A good source of information about local human services is 211. Call 211 or visit 211.org and search for human services programs in your community. Another source of information about community resources is a local chamber of commerce.
  • Help Clients “Juggle”– Strategize effective ways that clients can pay their bills when funds are limited. A general rule is that basic needs such as food and shelter always come first. Help clients prioritize their expenses and identify public benefits that will allow them to stretch their limited dollars. Using public benefits for food or utility bills, for example, conserves money for other expenses such as gas and rent.
  • Sponsor a Food Drive– Collect, and then distribute, food to support a local food bank or pantry. You will experience both the satisfaction of helping people who are less fortunate than you and the positive publicity that results from leading a community campaign to help others. Run the food drive outside a supermarket (with permission, of course) so that food donations are easily available. Worksite drop-offs are another option. Check the Feeding America website to find contact information for local food banks to donate to.
  • Donate to Anti-Hunger Organizations– Make a monetary donation to an anti-Hunger organization such as Feeding America. Any donation helps to reduce hunger and combat food insecurity. Another way to help is to donate time to help local food banks fill boxes or bags with food and distribute them to those in need.
  • Check for Tax Credits– Make sure families who are food insecure are accessing all available tax-related benefits such as the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit or EITC. The EITC is a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples, especially those with children. Refundable means that a tax credit could reduce your tax liability to less than $0, resulting in a refund.

Additional information about food insecurity can be found on the USDA Key Statistics and Graphics webpage.

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