The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.
The USDA has recently broken down the term food insecurity into additional terms, which might assist with gauging the severity of food security in which an individual or family experiences. Low food insecurity suggests that an individual or family has reduced access to good quality, variety, and/or desirability of their diet.In this guide
Very low food insecurity, on the other hand, suggests that an individual or family has encountered multiple disruptions of their regular eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Food insecurity thus has the capability to be both temporary or long-term for families, and is typically a direct result of economic difficulty.
Specific factors which may contribute to food insecurity include:
- low income
- an absence of affordable housing
- poor neighborhood conditions
- chronic health conditions
- reduced access to healthcare
- systemic racism and racial discrimination
In turn, food insecurity can result in psychological distress, complicated health issues, childhood developmental issues, and increased difficulties managing finances when families must choose between food and rent, bills, and/or transportation, for example.
According to Feeding America, more than 34 million individuals, including about 9 million children experience food insecurity within the United States alone. The American Action Forum acknowledges that food insecurity was the highest in the years that immediately followed the 2008 financial crisis, until our nation encountered the COVID-19 pandemic, which made food security unachievable for many individuals and families.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services found that in 2020, 28.6 percent of low-income households were food insecure, compared to the national average of 10.5 percent. This data suggests that food insecurity most prominently plagues low-income households.
The United States government has identified four primary goals in relation to aiding food insecurity across the nation. These goals include reducing household food insecurity and hunger, eliminating very low food insecurity in children, increasing fruit consumption by individuals ages two and over, and increasing vegetable consumption by individuals ages two years and over.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services hopes to reach these identified goals by improving economic stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, overall health and safety in the places where individuals live, work, learn and play, and increasing nationwide access to social supports.
Social work as a food insecurity mediator
Food insecurities, namely, the reduced frequency, quality, variety, and quantity of consumed foods, may have negative effects on individuals’ mental health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that food insecurity is associated with a 257 percent higher risk of anxiety and a 253 percent higher risk of depression.
This suggests that poor mental health is almost always likely to follow experiences of food insecurity. Negative mental health outcomes are likely to increase even further when individuals have to care for children and other loved ones. Food insecurity can be anxiety-provoking, traumatizing, and especially distressing for individuals and families.
Individuals may frequently go without food for days, weeks, and months, experience worries associated with their food running out or not lasting and/or feel incapable of affording balanced meals, all of which will impact their overall mental health and well-being.
Social workers and other mental health professionals are in a unique position to serve as the mediator between low-income communities/families and the overarching government. They have a more well-rounded perspective on food insecurity issues and can offer support in novel ways.
In conjunction with their ability to advocate for community-developing initiatives on both community-wide and political levels, social workers and other mental health professionals are especially essential when attempting to address problems of food access in low-income communities. (For more context, see our mental health and homelessness guide).
One of the most basic roles social workers and other mental health professionals can serve in is in the realm of case management. Professionals can connect clients with available services and supports, assisting them in applying and obtaining government aid.
Common initiatives, which professionals can connect their food insecure clients with include: the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Professionals can assist clients with applying for and obtaining more affordable housing and supply clients with career counseling services to improve access to quality employment, and subsequently, more sufficient modes of income.
Social workers and other mental health professionals can also increase awareness and education in the communities in which they serve. They can build genuine relationships within the communities they serve and participate in advocacy efforts aimed to improve the rates of food insecurity.
By communicating with both community members and government affiliates, social workers and other mental health professionals can suggest initiatives which tackle food insecurity, gaining and sustaining involvement and effort from both parties.
Addressing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety is also an important factor in reducing the experience of food insecurity. Improving individuals’ coping skills, resiliency factors, and social supports may serve as gateways to assisting low-income families and communities in maintaining their well-being as they navigate food insecurity.
Social workers and other mental health professionals can validate the lived experiences of food insecurity and assist individuals and families in problem-solving and creating prevention plans for the future.
Interested in working on food insecurity issues?
Are you interested in devoting your career to improving food insecurity issues within the nation? Lucky for you, there are a couple of different career paths you can take if this is your goal.
Social workers focus on helping others who are in need. They can engage in a variety of tasks, which might range from assisting someone with finding food or rental assistance to providing support for trauma to educating and supporting individuals through legal processes. Becoming a social worker can make you suitable to work in various positions and organizations. You could be capable of being a community organizer, a family therapist, a child welfare worker, and even a nonprofit organization administrator. In all of these roles, social workers can assist in directly addressing food insecurity.
Community social workers have a unique place in the world of human/social services. Community Social Work involves taking direct action and working with individuals and families directly to get them connected with various supports.
Some Community Social Workers may interact with a community as a whole, while others will work with targeted groups, like children or the elderly. Community Social Workers can engage in a variety of tasks, including identifying a community’s needs, collecting relevant data within a community, and then recommending and implementing relevant programs.
Data collected may also be utilized to apply for grants which can in turn support that community. Community Social Workers are equipped to create programs, lead task forces, and coalitions within their surrounding areas.
And, in smaller towns, Community Social Workers may make community-wide decisions and have increased responsibilities in terms of providing support and access to a community of people. As you can see, Community Social Workers have the capability to impact food insecurity issues directly.
Mental health social workers or psychiatric social workers often support individuals who are admitted to the hospital. They may be responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of clients they encounter, and may work alongside the client’s family, friends, and colleagues.
Mental health social workers are also responsible for discharge planning and reintegration into the community. Many times, with individuals encountered within the hospital setting, food insecurity may be an ongoing issue and potentially even a direct cause of negative mental health experiences. Thus, mental health social workers also have a unique opportunity to support food insecurity.
Macro social workers focus on policy changes. They work with communities, specific regions, or even the entire nation to institute legislative changes that support wider amounts of individuals. If you have a goal of leading a nonprofit social work organization, becoming a macro social worker may be the route for you. Macro social workers can impact food security issues from a broader perspective, tackling the foundational issues of our nation.
Regardless of what route you take, and there are others, taking the proper educational channels is a common denominator. In order to become a social worker or other mental health professional, you will need to receive an adequate education, internship, as well as licensure.
The first step to achieving a career field in social work is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, such as communications, psychology, or sociology. This degree can be earned either in person or online, and one should ensure that their chosen institution is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Bachelor-level programs (including online social word degree programs) in this field will support your knowledge-base of human development, human behavior, the social world, social work techniques, and social welfare policies, setting the foundation for your future career.
Next, a master’s degree in social work is important, and again, you’ll want to ensure your program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Master’s degrees in social work may be clinically focused, where social workers will gain the appropriate clinical skills to work within a community setting, or macro-community focused, where social workers will prepare themselves to work in a more managerial and advocate role of a community organization. Either route may be sufficient for addressing food insecurity issues within the wider population.
In general, a masters-level program in this field will teach you the ethical requirements of social work, social work practice methods, social work theories, and equip you with the skills necessary to review, survey, and complete your own research in the field. Special electives may also be available, which target the specific types of work or client populations which you are most interested in.
Finally, social work candidates will be required to complete an internship and will then want to work towards achieving state licensure. Licensure will vary from state to state, however, generally you will have to pass a state or national licensure exam, work under supervision and gain enough required hours, and then apply for licensure so you may work unsupervised in your desired field.
Upon obtaining licensure, there are a few more things you’ll want to keep in mind. Licenses in social work need to be periodically renewed. Renewal requirements typically include annual continuing education credit hours, which are determined by each state. You can find more information about the exact licensure renewal requirements by visiting the National Association of Social Workers website.
Something else to consider is obtaining specialized case management training or a case management certification. Social work case managers play an important role in the community, as we’ve recently discussed, because they can both support and advocate for their clients within and across a wide range of service settings. If you have hopes of targeting food insecurity, getting more experience with case management may be vital.
Continuing education webinars or in-person seminars may be capable of providing you with additional skills within the realm of case management. For example, in New York state, the Commission for Case Manager Certification provides continuing education to social work and nurse case managers.
In other cases, a professional certification for social work case management may be available. The National Associate of Social Workers, which is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, provides two opportunities for social work case managers to become credentialed. Bachelors level social workers can earn the credential of Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM) and masters level social workers may earn the credential of Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM). General requirements to earn either credential include several thousand supervised hours in delivering case management services and passing a relevant exam.
There are also a few more options in terms of becoming credential in social work case management. A national credential for social work case managers is available through the Commission for Case Manager Certification, the Accredited Case Manager credential (ACM-SW) is available through the American Case Management Association, and social workers who already hold the ACM-SW credential may go on to earn a Case Management Administrator Certification (CMAC). There are many opportunities, as you can see, to develop expert-level skills in case management.
Food insecurity resources
Hunger Hotline (USDA) – Information on meal sites, food banks, and other services near you
MyPlate (USDA) – Food Planning Support
Food Finder – Map of food pantries nationwide
Meals on Wheels America – Addresses senior hunger and isolation
Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) – Provides low income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children up to age five with services, including vouchers that can be redeemed for healthy foods at most major grocers, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and referrals for other services
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – Provides low and very low income families with cash assistance to help meet basic needs
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Resource (SNAP) – Provides low-income families with food benefits