It’s no secret that what we eat impacts our general health and wellbeing. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that healthy diets can help curb the risk of certain diseases and aid people with chronic illnesses in managing symptoms. But, for food insecure people, creating a healthy diet may be more difficult than it sounds.
In 2019, 10.5 percent of American households reported being food insecure, according to an Economic Research Service study conducted for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While the study found food insecurity to be trending down, 5.3 million households reported very low food security during the 2019 study.
The USDA regards food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” meaning the income level of the home does not cover all costs of living. The homes with the highest food insecurity rates in 2019 were those with incomes below the federal poverty line and single mother households.
When facing food insecurity, every dollar counts and gets stretched as far as it can go. Any time grocery costs rise, a budget is pushed that much further. The USDA reported that in 2019, the price index of fresh vegetables rose by 3.8 percent. According to Feeding America, 69 percent of households the organization serves have had to choose between food and utilities, while 79 percent stretched their food budget by purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food.
There are ways to combat food insecurity. The USDA operates 15 food and nutrition assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that spent a total of $92.4 billion in 2019. These programs are vital as they help children as well as adults. In 2018, 44 percent of SNAP participants were children.
Another way people facing food insecurity receive assistance is through food pantries. The number of food pantry guests rose throughout 2020 and the pantries were ready to meet their needs through curbside pickup and drive throughs. Karen Whitson, Director of ReNewed Hope Food Pantry in Overland Park, Kan., said that in 2020, they served more than 131,623 people, providing assistance to 28,633 households. A huge increase from the 27,000 people (8,545 households) served in 2019.
In order to accommodate the growing need for food relief during the pandemic, ReNewed Hope went from operating the first and third Sunday (curbside pantry) and Tuesday (mobile pantry) of each month to every Sunday and Tuesday. The organization also started working more closely with schools near the pantry. “We see a great opportunity to improve population health through school partnerships,” a ReNewed Hope report stated. “By helping students facing hunger overcome food insecurity we help them succeed in school and life.”
ReNewed Hope also offers assistance to those with special diets, allowing guests to sign up for specialized items such as gluten free and vegan dietary options, among others. Items for infants and toddlers are available upon request as well.
Volunteers also helped ReNewed Hope fulfill community needs. “From April to the end of December 2020, 537 volunteers signed up using our VOMO volunteer hub to help with hunger relief programs,” said Whitson, noting that the number had gone up from 109 volunteers in 2019. Whitson shared that volunteers were able to complete 166 serving dates and more than 10,506 hours during 2020 to make an economic impact of $285,000.
“Some food pantries were not able to stay open because volunteers, many in COVID-19 high-risk categories, were unable to keep serving,” stated Whitson. “The ReNewed Hope Food Pantry was able to stay open and expand the level of service to those facing food insecurity. Since we could not have done this without volunteers, the VOMO tool was a big part of helping the ReNewed Hope Food Pantry continue serving our community.”