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News & Press: Did You Know? CoSR Article Series

The Impact of Food Insecurity on Mental Health

Wednesday, October 9, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Karen Hardin
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This article is part of the "Did You Know" article series presented by OPA's Committee on Social Responsibility.

Written by: Elizabeth Emley, M.A. | Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate | Bowling Green State University

Food security is defined by the USDA as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Low food security, by contrast, is when individuals or families have reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, potentially leading to reduced food intake. According to Feeding America data from 2017, 14.5% of the Ohio population was food insecure, with the highest rates clustering around southern Ohio. Depending on your setting of practice, it is likely that some of your clients may be food insecure. 

One major stressor for families who are food insecure is that they may not be eligible for government assistance (e.g., WIC, SNAP) despite not having enough nutritious foods. According to Feeding America, of the 14.5% of individuals in Ohio who meet criteria for food insecurity, 37% do not meet criteria for government assistance because their income is above the poverty level. This means that they must rely on community resources such as food pantries to fill that gap. Research suggests that there are many barriers to utilizing these services, including social stigma, inconvenience of the process and hours, and insufficient information available on food pantry policies.

Data from the 2014 Gallup World Poll indicates that greater experiences of food insecurity are associated with greater negative experiences (e.g., anxiety, sadness, stress, anger) and fewer positive experiences (e.g., enjoyment, interest, well-rested) across the globe. Food insecurity can increase a person’s risk of developing a number of related mental health disorders. As clinicians, it is important for us to understand a clients’ life circumstances so that we can take a more preventative, culturally-sensitive approach to diagnosis and treatment. For example, assisting clients in understanding the impact that food insecurity has on their distress and dysfunction, processing the stigma they may be experiencing, and pointing them toward community resources can help reduce underlying health disparities that impact their ability to thrive.

Questions to assess food security with your clients:

  • Have you ever worried that food in your home would run out before you got money to buy more food?
  • Have you ever been unable to eat a balanced meal because your family didn’t have enough money for a variety of healthy foods?
  • Do your meals ever include only a few kinds of cheap foods because your family was running out of money to buy food?
  • Do you ever have to eat less or skip a meal because your family didn’t have enough money for food?

Tips for assisting your clients in getting the help they need:

  • Normalize and validate the stress of being food insecure. Help motivate them to seek the assistance they need if they are struggling with stigma or shame.
  • Explore the impact that food insecurity has on their distress and functioning. Help them explore what they can do in their lives and communities to reduce health disparities. On the individual level, they may need help with behavioral activation, assertiveness skills, or problem-solving. At the community-level, they may need guidance on how to engage in local government, what food access efforts they can get involved with, and how to communicate their concerns effectively to local organizations (e.g., schools, food pantries, churches).
  • Help them find food pantries in their area. There are resources for finding food pantries online for your state, county, and city. Be familiar with a couple options to point them in the right direction, and research those pantries’ specific policies and requirements to help clients prepare to utilize their services.

What you can do as a psychologist in your community to address food insecurity:

  • Contribute money to your local food pantries.
  • Advocate for legislation that can help address issues related to poverty and food access at the local, state, or federal level.
  • Engage in outreach events run by psychological organizations and local organizations to promote awareness and food access.
  • Support your local farmers market and other local sellers to keep food and money within your community.

Helpful resources:

Feeding America food pantry finder: https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank

Ohio Association of Food Banks: http://ohiofoodbanks.org/foodbanks/

To find food pantries in your specific county or city, simply Google “[county/city] Ohio food pantries”


Connell, C. L., Nord, M., Lofton, K. L., & Yadrick, K. (2004). Food security of older children can be assessed using a standardized survey instrument. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(10), 2566–2572. 

El Zein, A., Mathews, A. E., House, L., & Shelnutt, K. P. (2018) Why are hungry college students not seeking help? Predictors of and barriers to using an on-campus food pantry. Nutrients, 10, 1163. doi: 10.3390/nu10091163

Feeding America. (2017). Food insecurity in the United States. Retrieved from https://map.feedingamerica.org/

Jones, A. D. (2017). Food Insecurity and Mental Health Status: A Global Analysis of 149 Countries. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53(2), 264–273. 

United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). Food Security in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/