By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
In the past year, crises across the United States—extreme weather events, a pandemic and social unrest—have impacted food access and availability for many families and communities, demonstrating the interconnectivity of health, the economy and environmental and social issues. Access to nutrient-rich foods is compromised when communities are displaced by natural disasters and when supply chains are disrupted, limiting the availability of food. Nutrition and access to high-quality foods are two factors that impact all aspects of health, and marginalized communities are most affected economically and nutritionally during times of crisis.
Despite the known benefits of healthy eating, it is increasingly difficult for many children and families to make healthy choices. Low-income communities have been especially vulnerable to higher unemployment and economic hardship during the pandemic. In previous years, 1 in 6 children lived in a food-insecure household, and that number continues to rise. Today, Feeding America estimates that 1 in 4 children will experience food insecurity. The sharp rise in the number of people relying on food pantries and federal food programs is expected to continue for many years to come. A lack of access to food contributes to unhealthy eating patterns and negatively impacts emotional, physical and mental health.
Explore how food insecurity varies across the United States of America and its potential increase due to COVID-19 in the interactive map above. (Source: Feeding America)
Along with higher rates of unemployment, the pandemic has resulted in school closures and many more people working from home. These changes have disrupted access to food, education and socializing opportunities for children. Increasing access to high-quality foods is essential because students engage and learn best when their basic physical, mental, social and emotional needs are met. Creating more equitable access to a variety of high-quality foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, is more important now than ever.
The major shifts caused by the pandemic have prompted agriculture and food systems to work together in new ways to get food supplies redirected to the people and places where they are needed most. Farmers, suppliers and local and federal governments are working with food assistance programs to increase availability of nutrient-rich foods, including eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, to help reduce food waste and redirect high-quality foods to people in need.
Federal nutrition programs, school meal programs and charitable food assistance programs are also working in new and innovative ways to meet the increased demand for food assistance. Milk and dairy foods are a vital component of National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs and a valued source of nutrition at food banks and pantries that support healthy eating for children and their families. To learn more about how and why to support and foster healthy communities through access to nutritious food, visit HealthyEating.org/FoodAccess.
Read the Fall 2020 Trends report here.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal is the project manager of nutrition science and a registered dietitian nutritionist.
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