From sporadic bouts of empty shelves in grocery stores to persisting and widespread job losses, the past 10 months under COVID-19 have left many people struggling with reliable access to nutritious food.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found pandemic conditions this spring were associated with a spike in food insecurity among adults ages 18 to 26. This age group, known as emerging adults, has been shown previously to be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and the ways it affects health.
The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute within the National Institutes of Health, was conducted through a follow-up survey to Minneapolis/St. Paul area emerging adults who had participated previously in the School of Public Health’s Project EAT. About half of the survey respondents were living with their parents, while others were living with different relatives, significant others, friends, or children of their own. Findings from the study were recently published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Food security goes beyond just having enough to eat, said Nicole Larson, PhD, instructor in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health and leader of the study. The term means having consistent and dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.
“Someone with high food security will have no problems with accessing food that supports their health, whereas someone who is food insecure will report reduced quality or variety of their diet,” Larson said. “Purchasing more high-calorie, inexpensive snack foods in place of more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables is an example of such a change that someone may make to prevent hunger when they are food insecure.”
More severe cases of food insecurity, she added, could mean eating lower-quality food, skipping meals, or eating less food overall. The ramifications for health are potentially serious, as research shows food insecurity increases the chances that emerging adults experience health problems like elevated blood pressure and prediabetes.
Rising Insecurity, Changing Behaviors
According to the study, the percentage of emerging adults with a severe level of food insecurity early in the pandemic (12 percent) was six times greater than the national percentage of severe food insecurity among adults in December, before the pandemic reached the US.
While a few of the behavioral changes COVID-19 brought about were beneficial to health, such as preparing more food at home, most changes carried negative health consequences. Food-insecure emerging adults had worse in-home access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, ate fast food more frequently, and felt less safe during the initial months of the outbreak compared to those who were food-secure.
Institutional racism likely contributes to disparities with regards to who experiences food insecurity, Larson said. Those who experience discrimination in settings such as schools, workplaces, and courts may in turn receive lower wages, fewer promotions, poorer job security, and higher rates of incarceration—all of which can limit their ability to reliably access enough nutritious food and to practice healthy eating behaviors. Racism also plays a role in the disparities between the neighborhoods that have stores where people can buy low-cost, healthy foods and those that do not.
“The results of this recent study suggest it will be important to further explore how various forms of racism, including interpersonal racism, influence the shopping habits of emerging adults and their ability to locally obtain healthy food,” Larson said. “When individuals must travel outside their own neighborhood to shop for food and they are made to feel unwelcome by various forms of interpersonal racism inside stores (such as being followed around by a store employee), they are less likely to spend as much time shopping for the healthy food they need.”
Going forward, additional research could help to evaluate how the needs of emerging adults have changed as communities continue to cope with COVID-19. In the meantime, Larson said the study adds to growing evidence that demonstrates the need to simplify the process for emerging adults to access federal food assistance programs and to expand food assistance benefits for this age group.
“It is important that greater efforts be made to ensure emerging adults receive information about how to access emergency food assistance, emergency food networks receive more donations to meet the high demand they are facing, and health professionals contribute to efforts to address racism within their local communities,” she said.
The food insecurity study is part of a larger research program that aims to understand more about the challenges emerging adults face with regard to psychological and social health, eating healthy, and getting physical activity.
The program, called Eating, Activity, and Weight-Related Problems Across the Life Course in Diverse Populations, is funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, professor of epidemiology and community health in the University’s School of Public Health. The research team is actively engaged in sharing the results of these studies with stakeholders in the local community to help inform efforts to curb food insecurity and related issues.