Women and Food Insecurity

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Food insecurity is a problem faced by millions of people around the world, and the number is still increasing. In the United States alone, millions of people are afflicted by hunger every year. Of this number, a significant proportion of them are women. As the primary caretakers of the family, women play a crucial role in ensuring that their family’s health is not compromised. However, it is especially worrying that at least twelve million women in the United States are having problems providing enough food due to lack of money. This will have an adverse effect on both their physical and mental health, and also on their children for the next generation. For most of us, we may never understand the pain and agony that these individuals go through on a daily basis. We eat when we want to, we have the liberty to choose the type of food we like, and we are living comfortably without the constant fear of having not enough food for the family. This is the life which every single person should have, a life without fear of hunger. However, this is not the case for most of the food insecure women. Therefore, it is time to educate ourselves on this issue and hopefully through this essay, we are able to create some awareness in the society. By doing so, maybe we can help alleviate some of the suffering that these individuals go through every day.

Definition of Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is a condition that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. It may be caused by the unavailability of food, inadequate purchasing power, inappropriate distribution, or inadequate cooking facilities. In its most severe form, lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition, which is the cause of various diseases and mortality and has widespread social implications. Food insecurity can be experienced at different levels of severity. It may be transient, seasonal or chronic. It may be household- or individual-based. However, the core of the concept is that the availability of and access to food is unevenly distributed within and between populations, which has an adverse impact on the nutritional and health status of large sections of these populations. The widespread presence of food insecurity has serious implications for the health of children, since they are most susceptible to malnutrition. Finally, it has to be mentioned that food insecurity is a quantitative and qualitative concept. That is to say it should not be limited to tracking the total food availability, but should also refer to the ability of populations to have a regular supply of good quality food.

Importance of Addressing Food Insecurity in Women

Addressing food insecurity in women is particularly important primarily due to the multifaceted and compounding negative effects it has on their physical and mental health. Firstly, women are at a higher risk of experiencing food insecurity due to factors such as poverty, insufficient income, lack of education and opportunities, and societal norms and traditions which hinder their participation in the workforce. This means that women experience food insecurity and its health implications at higher rates than men. Secondly, the impact of food insecurity on women has significant negative outcomes. For example, women who are food insecure are more likely to have poor mental health compared to men who are food insecure. However, the effect of food insecurity on women and men’s health is similar; for example, food insecurity increases the chances of mental health problems for both women and men. However, the more chronic conditions need to be addressed when examining the impact of food insecurity on women’s health. For example, although only 10 percent of the general female population report suffering from coronary heart disease, a shocking 34 percent of women who are food insecure suffer from the illness. Not only does this demonstrate the extent of the impact of food insecurity on the health of women, it also shows how effectively addressing food insecurity can work to narrow the gap of health inequality that exists between different groups in society. By missing out on meals in order to protect children and provide for others, women often seek to shield the rest of the family from the impact of food insecurity. However, the consequences of this selfless act can worsen the health outcomes for women in the long term. Women who adopt a sacrificial eating habit may consume insufficient amounts of key nutrients essential for maintaining overall health. For example, a lack of iron can contribute to the development of anemia, particularly prevalent in women of childbearing age, a disorder characterized by chronic fatigue, weakness, and dizziness. This would impact upon a woman’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities and work, thus perpetuating the cycle of vulnerability leading from food insecurity. Therefore, the data paints a clear picture of the necessity to address the issue of food insecurity in women in order to sustain and improve health and well-being. I hope that governments and policymakers take this into account when designing and funding public health interventions for initiatives going forward.

Causes of Food Insecurity among Women

Given that food insecurity and poverty both have long-term influences on the health and development of children, it becomes even more concerning when we see how deeply the issue is influenced by economic inequalities, gender, and food access.

It’s well-documented that economic inequalities in the U.S. disproportionately affect women, as there is still no guarantee that even if a woman is working it will lead to economic stability. Wage differences between genders mean that a mother’s household may earn less than a father’s household, even if she’s in full-time employment. This effect of systemic economic inequality magnifies the risks of living in poverty when women are responsible for feeding and caring for their families, and thus increases the risk of food insecurity among female-led households.

Traditionally, care duties and unpaid labour have predominantly fallen on women and girls and this model doesn’t just apply to caring for family members. Globally, it is women who bear the brunt of dealing with the impact of a “lack of access to enough food” on a day-to-day level, whether this means searching for the next meal or managing the generational effects of children not receiving sufficient nutrition. But, even in the U.S., women who face the anxiety and hardships of food insecurity can find that their well-being is greatly affected when the social and political aspects of food insecurity start to intersect with poverty and gender.

As of 2017, the world saw an increase in the number of famines of which women have been disproportionately affected by. When villages and towns have been impacted by famine around the world, not only do farmers have to leave their agriculture, but this makes it common for the women to leave their homes and seek employment in other countries. Also, famines often result in the loss of men in many families, which makes the gender pay gap and obtaining an income far harder for women who have now become caretakers and sole providers for their families.

Among America’s poor families, single mothers are today more likely to be food insecure than any other demographic. For example, an estimated 42.2% of households headed by a single mother are classified as food insecure, with 16.4% falling into the “very low food security” category. As such, one can start to see a troubling connection between the tenuous nature of some women’s access to food and the burden of both hunger and food insecurity. Women comprise most people living in poverty and face many institutional barriers to equal pay and family-sustaining employment. It’s also essential to recognize that many women who are currently facing food insecurity are also doing so on behalf of their children.

In the United States, “food insecurity” falls squarely under the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture. According to the U.S. Government, “Food Insecurity is an economical and social condition of limited or unsure access to sufficient food.” While this definition may seem clear, it undeniably leaves out many of the integral, daily realities of individuals who are facing food insecurity each day. Many of America’s food insecure live with this struggle over their next meal on a regular basis, and as statistics have shown, many of those affected by food insecurity are women.

Poverty and Economic Factors

Aggregate economic growth is a priority for most countries, although the extent to which it results in poverty reduction depends on the degree to which the poor participate in the growth process and share in its proceeds. Blakely et al. confirm the existence of economic poverty with effective evidence. They discuss the fall of Detroit, in particular, the collapse of the big three motor companies and the associated growth has revealed the depths of these urban economic suffering and has left many of the residents in poverty.

According to the World Bank, nearly 1.7 billion people in developing countries live under $1.25 per day by 2015. It also says that poverty affects inequalities in access to medical services, nutrition, and education. This unequal distribution, in turn, perpetuates poverty by giving the people who are affected less equality of opportunity to improve well-being.

Systemic poverty is the condition where all attributes of poverty are interrelated in such a way that the whole system allows the continuation of poverty. In modern times of globalization and technological change, the socioeconomic is rapidly changing with growing inequality.

On the other hand, relative poverty refers to the absence of material and economic well-being to the extent that people in the given society cannot enjoy the same standard of living as others do. It is seen in developed and developing countries, for example, people in Africa and other Third World countries tend to have less economic welfare as compared to countries like the United Kingdom and USA.

Absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of human needs. It is when their biological needs, food, water, sanitation, clothing, and shelter are not met. It is a condition where scarcity of financial resources such as money is less than what is required to provide minimum necessities for life.

Unlike our conventional notion that poverty means the shortage of money only, poverty is defined by the World Bank in terms of purchasing power parity (World Bank, 2008, p.131). It means deprivation of essential goods, services, capabilities, and freedom to live life as it is worth living. These are food, safe drinking water, sanitation facility, health, shelter, education, and information. Poverty can be categorized as absolute poverty, relative poverty, and systemic poverty.

Gender Inequality and Discrimination

“Gender inequality refers to the unequal and unjust treatment of individuals based on their gender, and this is often rooted in discrimination. While a world with zero food problems may be hard to visualize, it would be a better place if gender inequality and discrimination are dealt with properly. The introduction of this section illustrates how women’s access to resources, their influence in social and political spaces, and their ability to contribute to their own well-being are often remarkably less than men’s. The text states that the food distribution normally is in favor of men and boys, as does responsibilities and ability to control food resources. Men and boys are usually served first and better, whereas women enjoy whatever is left, regardless of the nutritional values. It also points out that women might be threatened by violent actions at home and they can be hurt seriously physically and mentally. As a result of constant threats and control from the violent side, most of the time women have chosen to take fewer foods, lower in both quality and quantity, to avoid potential troubles that might emerge from any discontent that could arise if they fight for more food. Such kind of emotional stress and unhealthy habits may deteriorate women’s health in the long run. When it comes to education on food production and sustainable agriculture, bias against women often hinders women from getting the education that they deserve to have. For example, it is reported that in some countries, there are more than 30% fewer chances for female children to get educated in agriculture than male children. Students that enroll in these education programs are being paid much attention, thus women’s lack of knowledge in sustainable agriculture may lead to ineffective farm management and, unfortunately, can reduce the level of food production.”

Lack of Access to Education and Employment Opportunities

What exactly is food insecurity? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. This is a serious problem among women, mainly because women are more likely to be income-poor than men and so more vulnerable to food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme. Unequal access to education and employment reinforces this. When women are poorly educated and have few employment opportunities, they have little chance of escaping poverty and food insecurity. Education gives women the skills that they need to get a good job, and good jobs bring in money, making it easier to buy enough food to eat well. Lack of education among women can also reinforce gender inequalities. The Centre for Global Education states that sending children to school is often seen as a better investment for boys than it is for girls. If girls are only likely to have low paid jobs in the future, their families may sometimes decide that they are better off staying at home and doing domestic work – or getting married early. This reduces the potential earnings of women in the workforce and make families and communities more likely to experience food insecurity. By ensuring that women have access to education and training to at least secondary level, these sorts of gender inequalities can be broken down. After all, educated women are better able to support themselves, make sure their children are well fed and escape from abusive relationships. And studies show that when women are able to support themselves and their families, health and nutrition indicators immediately begin to rise. Providing better chances for women to find a good job is also key to addressing food insecurity. USAID says that if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people worldwide could be reduced by up to 150 million. However, women are often not given the same training, extension services or access to higher paid commercial dealings in agriculture – particularly in developing countries. This prevents them from producing efficient, profitable yields from their crops and perpetuates the cycle of poverty and malnutrition. It’s clear that ensuring women have both equal access to education and employment opportunities is crucial in addressing food insecurity. This is a point that is backed up by the Food and Agriculture Organization, which states that improving education for women is one of the many important aspects of breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty.

Impact of Food Insecurity on Women’s Health and Well-being

Food insecurity, like that experienced by many women, has been linked to less healthy diets and poor nutrition. It comes as no surprise that malnourishment is more prevalent in food insecure households, with this being a major concern for those who suffer from not having enough to eat. Research has shown that food insecurity not only affects what you eat, but also how often you eat, which can lead to negative health outcomes such as a weaker immune system and low energy levels thus impacting on mental health such as stress and depression. In terms of the physical impacts of malnutrition, it can lead to various conditions and diseases: scurvy from lack of vitamin C, anaemia caused by low iron intake, and rickets from a vitamin D deficiency. Women in particular are at a much higher risk of developing these diseases because they require a higher intake of certain nutrients than men. This would also impact a woman’s menstrual cycle, leading to irregular periods or in some cases it stopping altogether. An irregular menstrual cycle could then have further implications on a woman’s health if she does become pregnant, as it increases the risk of complications. Mental health issues are also prevalent for those experiencing food insecurity, such as high levels of anxiety and depression. The worry of not being able to provide nutritious meals for yourself or your children alongside the stress of having to skip meals can take a serious toll on mental wellbeing. High levels of depression can then further the cycle of food insecurity, as depressed parents are less likely to engage in pursuits that would enrich both their lives and those of their children, such as cooking a nutritious meal. All of these factors contribute to a significant decline in health for women experiencing food insecurity, both mentally and physically.

Malnutrition and Nutritional Deficiencies

Even though little studies focus specifically on the malnutrition of women due to food insecurity, fat women are more likely to suffer from the effects of malnutrition and insufficient diet than fat men or thin men and women. There are two types of malnutrition – primary and secondary. A primary malnutrition occurs when a diet is deficient in terms of nutrients that a body needs to develop and function properly. On the other hand, secondary malnutrition results due to other medical conditions that affect the body’s ability to metabolize and absorb nutrients from a diet. It leads to a poor digestive system and loss of appetite, for example. Income inadequacy is also one of the hurdles for optimal health as a secure income is helpful to provide access to sufficient and acceptable diet. Deficiency of micro and macro nutrients will invite numerous health problems and diseases in both the short and the long run such as obesity, rickets (Vitamin D deficiency), scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency), anemia (iron deficiency). It increases the cost of healthcare to treat, exacerbates existing social inequalities, and hinders the development of many people, particularly women. Pregnant women who face food insecurity have poor mental well-being as they are at a higher risk of antenatal depression and other psychological disorders. Malnutrition during pregnancy can lead to a low or high birth weight in the neonate, an increased risk for the mother of birth complications, and also an increased risk of mortality for the baby in the first month of life. In Malaysia, a large-scale survey conducted in 2008 showed that about 23.7% of pregnant women suffered from food insecurity. As a result of it, around 8% out of 406 participants had a low birth-weight baby while around 6% of babies were born prematurely.

Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases

In addition to malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies, women suffering from food insecurity are also at a much higher risk of developing chronic diseases. For example, obesity is a major public health problem in adults. It is associated with an increased risk of a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Research has shown that food insecurity is associated with higher risk of obesity among women. For example, a Canadian study found that household food insecurity was associated with a 25% higher odds of developing obesity over a 12-year follow-up period. It is suggested that food insecurity may promote overeating when food is available, as individuals may binge for fear that they will not have enough to eat in the future. As a result, frequent overeating can lead to long-term weight gain and obesity. Some studies with food insecure women have suggested that unhealthy eating behaviors and poor diet quality, such as increased carbohydrate consumption and lower intakes of fruits and vegetables, could be mediating factors linking food insecurity and obesity. These findings highlight the complicated relationship between food insecurity, unhealthy eating behaviors, obesity and related health conditions. However, people with obesity, particularly those from food insecure households, may also face significant barriers to accessing adequate and comprehensive healthcare, including weight management programs and preventative health services. This can result in a delay in diagnosis or treatment, and ultimately lead to further health declines and increased mortality risk. Given the strong and consistent association between food insecurity and obesity across different countries and between different age groups, particularly among women, addressing obesity and related health problems should be a priority in food insecure populations. By providing evidence-based nutritional and weight management support at an individual level and advocating for structural interventions to address food insecurity at a population level, we can help women reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases and improve their overall health and wellbeing.

Mental Health Consequences

Women with food insecurity are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The probable intergenerational consequences of maternal mental infection could have a substantial toll when it is kept in mind that food-insecure women are more likely to also have an underweight infant. Hormones play a role in the relationship between stress and hunger, feeding the insecurities many people vulnerable to mental health problems suffer from. Studies have confirmed that cortisol responses Kelly discovered among food-insecure women, a response that likely keeps the body and mind in a state of excessive stress. When examining hormonal responses to inflammatory stimuli, Kelly stated that the food-insecure group had greater inflammatory cytokines. The inflammatory response connects to stress, and over time, with changes in cortisol production, a “snowball” effect can occur in which the system’s function is affected. Cytokine production and the body’s day-to-day normal responses are modulated by such hormones, and immune responses are excessively affected by up and down-regulation. Not surprisingly, the stress of not having enough to eat can cause emotional disturbances as well; but these emotional changes are not just temporary discomforts. Kelly noticed that the acute-phase inflammatory response shown by bodies subsiding quickly once the cortisol response dampens, it discovered more sustained changes in cytokine production. She added, “The literature shows that if the inflammatory stimulus is quite long-lived or persistent, it could rewire the immune response such that it’s more like the inflammatory response.” Kelly referenced mood disorders, psychiatric illnesses characterized by chronic inflammation and dysregulation of cytokines. It could be possible for cytokines to play some role in the higher susceptibility to mood disorders. Kelly’s research has profound implications for public health, particularly in identifying those most vulnerable. She is looking for signs of links between infections, or social or behavioral factors and the development of disease because these are factors that can be modified or intervened.

Solutions and Interventions to Address Food Insecurity in Women

One significant method to address food insecurity in females is to improve economic opportunities and empowerment for women. Lower rates of pay for women in the workforce alone often imply that women have less money to spend on food relative to men. The provision and expansion of social safety net programs can bring about women of low-economic status to access nutritional assistance and aid programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Some laws have focused on improving and increasing access for those in need, such as the Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reinstates programs that provide already nutritionally balanced diets within the budget provided for children up to age 18. Also, in countries where food insecurity occurs in multitudes, such as India or different African nations, sustainable agricultural and food systems can be promoted. A special instance of this is Ivory Coast, where the agricultural system in the country has heavily relied on the country’s large production and trade of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. However, in years where political instability or factors such as climate change have negatively impacted the production and trade of cocoa, the country has experienced widespread food insecurity as many families live from hand to mouth on the produce and money made from cocoa. The encouragement of alternative crops or the implementation of diversification of farming not only means that the country has more stable domestic markets and foreign trade, but families will have a greater continuity of food supply and therefore fewer frequent and severe malnutrition cases. Obviously, on the scale of a society or a global scale, resolving these large-scale issues requires time and often a certain level of political will that may not always be present. However, it is massively important that any prioritizing of resources on a local or global scale takes into account the food insecurity present in parts of the world and looks to aid and implement long-lasting and self-sustaining solutions.

Improving Economic Opportunities and Empowerment

One approach to addressing food insecurity among women is to improve their economic opportunities and empower them to escape poverty and attain food security on their own. Economic solutions for food insecurity among women usually focus on providing better job opportunities and increasing overall wages. This approach is based on the idea that if women simply had more money, through either better jobs or more training for higher paying jobs, the food insecurity that they face may be greatly diminished. This is based on the prevailing causes for food insecurity that are related to women, which are the lack of a job or the lack of a good paying job. This approach emphasizes giving women better job opportunities and the ability to provide for themselves. It has a strong focus on finding women jobs in either the non-profit sector, as workers who help to distribute resources and help others, or in jobs where they may be able to give back to their own communities. The idea is that if women do not have to rely on outside support themselves, they will be able to take control of their own economic situation. Another popular demographic in discussions of economic solutions for food insecurity among women is single mothers. This approach emphasizes finding solutions for the short term challenges of food insecurity through distributing immediate aid or creating programs to provide meals. However, it also aims to find long term solutions by providing services and aid that enable women to address the root causes of food insecurity, like gaining employment and building stable lives. Domestic abuse is identified as both a cause and a consequence of food insecurity and the fear of food deprivation is the most commonly mentioned reason of staying in an abusive relationship, the article published by Elsevier on ScienceDirect mentions. Economic solutions often involve creating legal changes that would classify economic abuse or preventing access to food as abuse. This recognition of the harm of food insecurity and economic abuse is a critical step in allowing for successful advocacy of laws, as it can be used in arguments that claim that abusers benefit from food insecurity and the legislative system should and can help break the cycle.

Enhancing Access to Education and Skills Training

Another crucial strategy in the move towards finding solutions to the issue of women living in food insecurity is addressing the lack of education and job skills. Many women who face food insecurity have not completed high school or college, and they may also lack the technical or sales skills that are typically attractive to employers. Community programs that offer GED classes and the chance to learn technology skills, such as word processing and internet navigation, can help women to increase both their confidence and ability to find a job. Also vital to the assistance of women facing food insecurity is the opportunity to gain practical job skills and experience. Many community-based programs offer some kind of job training program, either through a stand-alone entity or in partnership with a local employer. In some cases, women may be able to complete a short term of training in order to qualify for entry level positions in more in demand fields, such as medical billing or biotechnology. In other cases, job training programs may take the form of a part-time, “real world” experience looped with some kind of formal education, such as an apprenticeship. By successfully ensuring that women have the education and job skills needed to find stable, well-paying work, future generations of women and children who might otherwise face food insecurity will be positively impacted. When women have opportunities for self-sufficiency, they are able to create a life filled with dignity and fulfillment.

Strengthening Social Safety Nets and Support Programs

Ultimately, the effectiveness of each social safety net or support program in ameliorating food insecurity among women, particularly for those who have multiple, intersecting social disadvantages, is underpinned by broader political and socio-economic factors. Therefore, another potential avenue for future work is to evaluate how inequalities based on gender, race, class, and other social categories influence policy decisions and the distribution of resources.

Other in-kind and non-profit organizations often provide food aid and nutrition services to individuals and families who meet specific eligibility criteria, as well. Various types of food aid include emergency food assistance, food pantries, and congregate and home-delivered meals. These organizations may be tied to national associations, such as Feeding America, regional food banks, or local churches and community centers. They often receive both private and public funds to offset the costs of providing food to those who are food insecure, and they may also benefit from volunteer labor. Research has shown that in addition to alleviating hunger, food aid can also reduce non-food spending among the food insecure. However, claims have to be backed up with empirical evidence by looking at how food aid directly or indirectly mediates food spending against other types of consumption so it can be better understood how food insecurity is related to the efficacy of food aid programs.

In the United States, key federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), are important in helping women at different stages in their lives to access nutritious foods that they otherwise may not be able to afford. Research has shown that women who have access to SNAP have greater food security compared with low-income adult non-parents and low-income parents who do not have access to SNAP. However, women are still more likely than men to report food insecurity, regardless of whether they have access to SNAP or not. This points to the idea that direct assistance through social safety net programs, while necessary and beneficial, may not be sufficient in eliminating food insecurity among women. As a result, this highlights the fact that there is still a need to better understand the underlying causes of food insecurity among women and examine the intersecting social issues, rather than solely paying attention to individual-level solutions.

Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems

“Food systems” refer to the entire process from the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. “Sustainable agriculture” is a type of agriculture that focuses on producing long-term crops and livestock while having minimal effects on the environment. By promoting sustainable agriculture and food systems, we can address food insecurity in women and work towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 – “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” There are a few key ways that these goals can be met using solutions and interventions that work with agriculture and local food entities, including social enterprises. First, existing small scale agricultural businesses, such as family-run farms and community gardens could be significantly improved if women were provided with the resources that they need in order to make these businesses grow. These resources could be in the form of better, cleaner irrigation systems, higher quality seeds, access to farming equipment and creating a network with larger scale businesses to help distribute their products. Therefore, by simply helping these women and empowering them with both personal and business development, they will not only lift themselves out of food poverty but their solution to a better, more reliable food source will feed into helping others who suffer from food poverty. Secondly, solutions that focus on local food systems and social enterprises are growing in popularity. These solutions are centred on getting communities involved in growing their own food and working with local businesses to create platforms for distributing this food. By having a localised system for food supply, this can reduce wastage and allow for greater overall food quality as less preservatives and long distance transportation is required. Furthermore, the introduction of social enterprises into both these solutions and existing larger agricultural pursuits provides opportunities for creating jobs and increasing skill development. These businesses would not be solely in the name of generating profit; social enterprises have a primary goal of working towards a social change and addressing local and immediate requirements for help. This can include food poverty and by allowing these enterprises to introduce and provide new, albeit sustainable, solutions to helping people with food insecurity, each step can be taken in providing women with a chance to make a difference. By situating the motivation for sustainable agricultural/social enterprise solutions around the principles of community integration and progressive help for those in need, these solutions are inclusive of everyone who may benefit from locally sourced and ethically produced food.

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