The Biden Administration released the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022, citing research by FRE associate professor Di Fang.
Fang’s research, conducted while at the University of Arkansas and published in March 2021, looks at the association between food security and mental health, specifically as evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food Insecurity During COVID-19
During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, many food security issues were exacerbated for all Americans, and low-income families particularly.
Food supply chain shortages led to scarcity in stores and inflation of prices. Those relying on school meals to feed their children may have struggled as schools shut down. Public transit limitations further increased the burden on those from low-income communities who rely on it to reach food.
“There was little evidence on the link between food insecurity and mental health at the early stage of the pandemic,” Fang said. “That is why we decided to focus on this topic. In the absence of a large-scale census data at the time of the research, our survey filled the knowledge gap by providing some early evidence, which led to many much more research on this topic.”
Developing a Measure of Impact
During this period, Fang and her colleagues from University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Texas A&M University conducted a nationwide public survey asking questions to low-income Americans during June and July of 2020.
By taking separate measures of food insecurity, anxiety, and depression, the researchers could look for associations between food hardship and mental health issues.
Three types of questions were utilized: a Patient Health Questionnaire that is used by medical professionals to measure depression; the General Anxiety Disorder Questionnaire -7, which is used to clinically diagnose anxiety; and the 10-item US Adult Food Security Survey Module by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
They also asked questions specifically about the level of worry survey participants faced regarding food shortages before and during the pandemic to see how big of a role new food hardship because of the pandemic played.
“ The results show that being food insecure triggered higher levels of depression and anxiety than losing a job during the pandemic,” Fang said. “This is especially true for families with children. Food insecurity is not only an a hunger issue but also an issue on of mental health”.
Results Take Shape through National Policy Change.
By drawing on research like that developed by Fang and other researchers, the National Strategy developed into five pillars.
Included in the plan are efforts to increase equity and reduce food hardship in underserved communities through the expansion of federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP, ensure access for all communities to local, healthy foods, and increase nutrition-related research to fill in gaps in the current knowledge so that further policy changes can be made that are evidence-backed.
“Evidence-based research is crucial for policymaking,” Fang said “Our research was one of the first to bring mental health into the well-discussed issue of food insecurity caused by the pandemic. With the readiness of large-scale census data on food insecurity, I encourage researchers to look into this important issue of mental health and food insecurity.”