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Q&A: Latinx Community Impacted by Food Insecurity During COVID-19

March 3, 2021
The University of California, Merced campus. Photo credit: David Burk
The University of California, Merced campus. Photo credit: David Burk

COVID-19 has left the food insecure population especially vulnerable. The pandemic has upset food supply chains and in turn, access to healthy and nutritious food has become even more difficult. A cadre of public health professors are lending insight into how the food shortage has specifically impacted the Latinx community.

Public health professors Denise Payán, Maria-Elena de Trinidad Young and Susana Ramírez and registered dietician L. Karina Díaz Rios wrote a commentary, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in which they examine food insecurity in the time of COVID. The piece, titled “Structural Barriers Influencing Food Insecurity, Malnutrition, and Health Among Latinas During and After COVID-19: Considerations and Recommendations” highlights macro- and microenvironment-level factors that influence the Latina community’s access to nutritious food, including the role of structural barriers, economic constraints, gender, immigration policy and food support programs.

“There is a critical need for increased awareness among nutrition professionals regarding these interconnected issues and the structural barriers influencing food insecurity, as well as additional research and policy to inform sustainable, culturally sensitive nutrition interventions for Latinas,” the professors write. “Registered dietitian nutritionists and nutrition and dietetics technicians are ideally positioned to address food insecurity and malnutrition among vulnerable populations.”

In this Q&A, the authors answer questions about exactly what food insecurity is and how COVID-19 has highlighted this issue.

Payán is a health policy researcher whose interests include examining the health policymaking process; evaluating interventions to address obesity and nutrition-related health disparities; and understanding how policy impacts health behavior. She is the principal investigator of the Community Health & Innovative Policy (CHIP) Lab and Deputy Director of the state-wide research translation center known as the California Initiative for Health Equity & Action (Cal-IHEA).

Ramírez is a nationally recognized expert on media, inequality and dietary health, and Latinx cultures. She has provided expert testimony for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on communicating about obesity and chronic disease and is frequently invited to discuss communication and public health challenges facing rural and Latinx populations.

Young is an immigrant health researcher who conducts research to understand the health impacts of immigration policies at national, state and local levels. Her recent work examines the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on Latinx immigrants in rural parts of California.

Díaz Rios is a registered dietitian with expertise in designing culturally relevant interventions to improve food environments and validating the tools to measure their value. Her scholarship is rooted in the exploration of socioecological determinants of nutritional status with the goal of constructively reaching vulnerable populations for malnutrition prevention.

For those who haven’t heard the term before, what exactly is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritious and safe food. Food insecurity can be an acute or chronic (long term) issue, and it is often measured at the household level. A food-secure household can provide all members consistent access to sufficient, nutritious and safe foods to live active, healthy lives.

Who is most likely to suffer from food insecurity?

Food insecurity rates are highest among workers in low-wage industries or who are unemployed. Food insecurity particularly impacts low-income households with children, Black and Latino households, and households led by single mothers.

How has COVID-19 amplified this issue?

First, the economic crisis — the rise in unemployment and reduced incomes — has increased food insecurity levels, especially among those most vulnerable to malnutrition before the pandemic. Second, existing safety nets that provide consistent access to nutritious food, like school meals, were disrupted by the pandemic. They, and other sources of emergency food resources like food pantries, have had to modify how they distribute food to do so safely to reduce risk of COVID-19 infection. These resources and safety net programs have also been overwhelmed by the increased demand.

Your research addresses the link between food insecurity and the Latinx community. What are your findings?

Even before the pandemic and current economic crisis, Latinos have been shouldering a disproportionate burden of food insecurity. This has to do with the precarity that characterizes many Latinos’ lives. For example, Latinos have about triple the unemployment rate of non-Latino whites in the United States — those who are employed are clustered in lower-paying positions that do not offer benefits and are often in-service work that is temporary or subject to frequent turnover. These are all known factors that impede regular access to nutritious food. There are also barriers, including policy and environmental factors, that discourage Latinas’ participation in safety net programs intended to alleviate food insecurity in the U. S. and that negatively impacts their nutritional well-being.

How does one’s environment — where someone lives, their home life or community and access to healthy food — play a role in food security?

Availability and convenience are important factors in accessing food. This is especially true for those facing competing priorities that have sharpened with the pandemic, like health care and housing needs. The pandemic reduced access to key sources of social support and public resources for communities that were already constrained. We know, for example, that school meal participation dropped during the pandemic. Many families cannot afford or lack the means to pick up their child’s meals on a regular basis.

We also know that the media plays an important role in food security during COVID. During the pandemic, there has been a lot of misinformation spread via social media and real-life interpersonal networks, which is creating information overload that has direct effects on Latinas’ behaviors and health. At the same time, the food and beverage industry has been very good at targeting Latinas with culturally appropriate, values-based appeals to consume unhealthy but accessible products.

What does it take to combat food insecurity? What is being done already and what needs to be done?

In the U.S., the largest federal nutrition assistance program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh in California and formerly the food stamps program. There is also the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) for expecting and new mothers. For children, consistent access to nutritious school meals is critical for their development, health and well-being, and also helps to offset food insecurity for households. These programs made changes to adapt during the pandemic, like temporarily increasing benefits or offering alternative forms of distribution. Rapid implementation research is needed to assess who benefitted from these modifications and who still needs to be reached. On the health care side, screening for food insecurity and referring food insecure patients to community food assistance and nutrition education programs can also be helpful.