Food Insecurity and Mental Health
In 2023, 9.2% of the world’s population faced chronic hunger, mostly in the developing world. Tragically, nearly one in five people in Africa are undernourished, compared to less than 3% in North America and Europe. 

Many may be familiar with the physical cost of hunger. However, they might not know the crippling psychological harms that food insecurity imposes. The interplay between food insecurity and mental health is one more reason why addressing global hunger has never been more urgent. 

The State of Food Insecurity and Mental Health 

Food insecurity is the lack of consistent access to nutritious food, often due to economic constraints. It raises the risk of chronic hunger, preventing people from leading active and healthy lives. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the world has witnessed inflation and scarcity, plunging 122 million more people into hunger in 2023 compared to 2019. 

Worrying about securing food, or living in perpetual fear of hunger, subjects low-income people to constant stress with serious potential consequences for their mental well-being. A Canadian study found that those grappling with food insecurity are three times more likely to report adverse mental health outcomes. Similarly, research in the U.S. estimated that food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic had three times the negative impact on mental health that pandemic job loss did.

The Hidden Cost of Living with Hunger 

Food insecurity itself inflicts psychological harm. However, some coping strategies can also breed anxiety or shame, particularly if social stigma marks them. This is another way food insecurity and mental health are tragically connected. 

Here are several common strategies for coping with food insecurity

  • Buying cheaper foods 
  • Borrowing money for food, or borrowing food 
  • Limiting food intake, especially parents limiting their food intake to ensure their children have enough to eat 
  • Begging for food 
  • Using government assistance or charitable programs, such as food banks 

In South Africa, where more than 20% of households experience food insecurity, researchers estimate that as many as one in five households have resorted to begging for food. This has an association with a higher risk of psychological harm compared to other coping strategies because of the uncertainty, danger and stigma that surrounds begging. 

The Path to Progress  

Improving food assistance mechanisms like government food banks or charitable programs may not provide a comprehensive solution when taking food insecurity and mental health into account. Especially when individuals risk being seen receiving food aid, seeking help often triggers embarrassment or stress. That means going to a local food bank is not enough to truly free people from the harms of hunger. 

Meaningful and sensitive improvements to tackle food insecurity could prove effective in combating mental health crises around the world. One promising initiative is Feed the Future, a program that the U.S. government funds and manages. In its 20 countries of operation, Feed the Future employs a three-part strategy including developing agriculture, building community resilience and working towards whole-population nourishment. Notably, this initiative builds systems for long-term food security, rather than short-term relief. 

From 2011-2021, Feed the Future secured $4.8 billion in funding for global food security and generated nearly four times that amount in global agricultural sales. The program estimates that 23.4 million more people are above the poverty line due to its work around the world.

The connection between food insecurity and mental health provides just another reason why combating global hunger is of the utmost importance. With compassionate, awareness-driven food aid, it is possible to alleviate hunger and benefit the physical and mental health of millions around the world.

Faye Crawford
Photo: Flickr