Friday, July 22, 2011

Experiences of Food Insecurity

Shifting my focus from policy-related books, I’ve devoted my attention this week towards absorbing information in the academic literature related to experiences of food insecurity. Broadly, I’ve learned that the experience of food insecurity is collectively shared. While I dislike making generalizations across geographic locations and communities, it is easy to see that those facing hunger in the rural communities of Oregon and Appalachia are quite similar in their perceptions of the experience to those we’ve interviewed as part of our Voices of Hunger project.

In De Marco, Thornburn, and Kue’s (2009) analysis of the experiences of the food insecure in rural Oregon, similar contributors to food insecurity were noted, including a lack of health insurance and foregrounded requirements to pay for bills and rent, as well as the administrative hurdles potential recipients face in determining their eligibility for national safety-net programs. I was particularly intrigued by their discussion of the increased difficulties faced by rural food insecure, as this is a dialogue I’ve been interested in joining. The authors note that even when low-income rural residents are able to obtain employment where they live, community resources such as public transportation and child care are often limited. Most jobs in rural communities are not within walking distance, and rural residents without cars are unable to get to them. These factors collectively contribute to the lower incomes that make food insecurity more likely. In addition, rural communities face other conditions contributing to food insecurity, including limited access to supermarkets and limited and highly priced food items. I was also very interested in the response of their participants regarding the stigma associated with using food pantries in rural communities. Particularly, the use of food pantries is difficult for those in small towns due to the lack of anonymity inherent in rural living. Coming from a small town myself, I’ve seen the stigma associated with visiting food banks or accessing food assistance programs, paired with the lack of privacy inherent from living in small towns where one person’s business is everyone’s business, keep needy individuals from accessing services. And even academically, in multiple situations I’ve faced difficulty in describing my interest in rural health disparities with fellow scholars, particularly because many of them feel as though the disparities faced by the urban poor are much more recognizable and thus worthy of study. However, the factors noted above substantiate the need for increased attention paid towards rural populations as well.

Hamilin, Habicht, and Beaudry’s (1999) discussion of the social implications of food insecurity was interesting in its expansion of the existing boundary of how we conceptualize the impact of food insecurity at a societal level. The authors suggest that social implications of food insecurity include decreased productivity, an inability for educational attainment, increased powerlessness, increased need for healthcare, decreased constructive participation in social life, and an erosion of transfer of knowledge to the next generation. Considering these implications, I’m left questioning why we (mainstream media, public and academic discourse) fail to frame the food insecurity crisis in such broad context? Failure to do so, focusing only on the proximal impact of food insecurity (and sometimes not even that), seems to maintain a culture of discouraged support for broad social policy change.

Finally, I was most impressed by Hamilin, Mercier, and Bedard (2010)’s analysis of the perceptions of both food insecure households in Canada and community stakeholders involved in food insecurity projects. Juxtaposing the responses of the food insecure against those who volunteer and coordinate food assistance programs clearly substantiated the need for better administrative coordination of food insecurity services. And, ultimately, it was extremely disheartening to see how far public perceptions of food insecurity are from its lived reality. For instance, stakeholders largely misperceived that households wouldn’t have much concern for the nutritional quality of food they received from food pantries. Additionally, most households reported at least one positive influencing factor with regards to food security and healthy management practices in terms of assets and food. However, less than half of the stakeholders remarked that households possessed either one of these elements. These divergences are of great concern. As the author’s suggested, “It has already been observed that many food assistance staff strongly believed that households would go hungry if not for food donations; this perception could make them dissociate themselves from the needs of their clients, and even poor quality food would then be considered as necessary donations.”

It was also troubling to see that a majority of the community stakeholders had no prior experience with food insecurity. Their knowledge about food insecurity would therefore come from other sources. Community workers had the opportunity to make many direct contacts with food-insecure households, but managers and donor agency representatives relied on indirect information via field workers’ perceptions, reports from their organization, or published literature on food security. This is particuarly troubling considering that these individuals are often those most responsible for the administrative and sustained success of local food assistance programs. Perhaps encouraging interaction between the food insecurity and food assistance workers at all levels would aid in promoting a better understanding of food insecurity. A community-based approach that includes the food insecure’s own perceptions of the problem would be useful here, especially to work towards empowerment and perhaps alleviation of food insecurity problems in place of continued reinforcement of reliance on the food assistance system.

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