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How Christians can help with food insecurity and food deserts

Millions of people are living in households with food insecurity in the United States, including 3 million children, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of the factors leading to this lack of food for many families is the reality of food deserts. It’s important that Christians become aware of our neighbors who are vulnerable in this way so that we can help meet their tangible needs in the name of Jesus.

Food insecurity is defined at a household level as the lack of adequate food for any household member due to financial constraints​​. It occurs when people do not have sufficient access to nutritious and affordable food. According to data from the USDA, in 2022, 12.8% (17.0 million households) were food insecure. Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources. 

In 2022, 5.1% of U.S. households (6.8 million households) had very low food security. In this more severe range of food insecurity, the food intake of some household members was reduced, and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because of limited resources. Children were food insecure at times during 2022 in 8.8% of U.S. households with children (3.3 million households), and suffered instances of very low food security in 1.0% of households with children (381,000 households).

These households with very low food security among children reported that children were hungry, skipped a meal, or did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food. The lack of access to nutritious food is associated with an increased risk of multiple chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, mental health disorders, and other chronic diseases.

Where the problem is most prevalent

Within the U.S., the prevalence of food insecurity varies considerably by state. In addition to household-level characteristics such as income, employment, and household structure, the prevalence of food insecurity is also affected by state-level characteristics such as average wages, cost of housing, and unemployment. 

Estimates for the three-year period of 2020–22 are that the prevalence of food insecurity was:

  • higher than the national average in six states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas);
  • lower than the national average in 17 states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin);
  • and in the remaining 27 states and the District of Columbia, differences from the national average were not statistically significant. 

The prevalence of very low food security was:

  • higher than the national average in eight states (Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas);
  • lower than the national average in 13 states (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington);
  • and not significantly different from the national average in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

One of the contributing factors to food insecurity is the existence of food deserts. The USDA defines food deserts in urban areas as locations where people live more than one mile from a supermarket, and in rural areas, where they live more than 10 miles from a grocery store. These areas often lack full-service grocery stores, supermarkets, and farmers’ markets, making it challenging for residents to obtain nutritious food. Food deserts are more common in:

  • inner-cities,
  • low-income households,
  • female-headed households,
  • rural communities,
  • and communities of color. 

A related concept is a food mirage, which describes a geographic area where individuals and communities live in close proximity to grocery stores or supermarkets offering a seemingly vast array of healthy food choices, but many individuals cannot afford these foods. Within these areas, individuals must travel increased distances to find more budget-friendly healthful foods.

How Christians can help

There are several ways Christians and churches can help with this problem.

Advocacy and awareness: Christians can use our platforms, such as church ministries, social media, and community organizations, to raise awareness about the issues of food insecurity and food deserts. By advocating for policy changes, supporting local initiatives, and sharing stories of those affected, we can make others aware of an issue that God is concerned about (Isa. 58:6–7)

Support local food banks and pantries: Many churches already have food banks or pantries that provide assistance to those in need. We can contribute by donating food, volunteering our time, or organizing food drives to ensure that these resources are available to vulnerable communities.

Community gardens and farmers’ markets: Christians can support the establishment of community gardens and farmers’ markets in food deserts. These initiatives can provide access to fresh, locally grown produce and create opportunities for education and community building.

Partnerships with nonprofit organizations: Christians and churches can collaborate with nonprofit organizations that focus on addressing food insecurity and food deserts. By combining resources, expertise, and networks, these partnerships can have a more significant impact on the communities they serve. Southern Baptists have an organized effort through Send Relief called Global Hunger Relief.

Education and empowerment: Christians can support initiatives that provide education on nutrition, cooking, and budgeting skills to individuals and families facing food insecurity. By empowering people to make healthier choices and manage their resources effectively, we can work toward long-term solutions.

The issue of food insecurity and food deserts in the U.S. is a complex one, intertwined with broader societal and economic issues. However, by embodying the teachings of Christ and engaging in concerted, community-driven efforts, Christians can play a part in alleviating these pressing issues, reflecting the broader Christian ethos of service, compassion, and justice, and making way for the life-changing news of the gospel.

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