GRANT: Stimulating Research to Understand and Address Hunger, Food and Nutrition Insecurity

Due November 3

Imagine a world without hunger, in which all individuals, families, and communities have ready access to enough affordable, nutritious food to sustain a happy and healthy life. The goal is urgent with levels of hunger, worsened by a weak supply chain that restricts access of nutritious food to underserved populations. The result is a rising incidence of food and nutrition insecurity, which like hunger, stems from many factors beyond food and aligns with lack of access to life-enhancing resources.

Food insecurity — defined as the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life — is a major public health concern and was exacerbated due to high rates of unemployment and reduction in work hours during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that 13.8 million US households (approximately 10.5 percent of all US households) experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity is inextricably linked to poverty, with 35.3 percent of households with a household income to poverty ratio under 1 being food insecure. Moreover, household food insecurity affected 14.8 percent of households with children and was particularly high in households headed by Black (21.7 percent) or Hispanic (17.2 percent) individuals. Food insecurity has also been noted as a concern for additional subgroups such as the aging population, those that experience disabilities, and American Indian/Alaska Native communities. Related is the concept of nutrition security, which is defined as having consistent access, availability, and affordability of foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent (and if needed, treat) disease, particularly among racial/ethnic minority populations, lower income populations, and rural and remote populations including Tribal communities and insular areas (USDA). This term is less documented in the research literature and there is no validated measure to assess nutrition security. This is therefore an opportunity for future research.

Food insecurity is related to suboptimal and/or poor diet quality, which increases chronic disease risk among the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Several cross-sectional studies have shown that food insecure adults have lower nutrient intakes and lower Healthy Eating Index scores compared with secure food adults, especially among those with lower incomes. Consequently, food insecurity is associated with increased risk for nutrition-related negative outcomes, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers. Although this association has been examined in the literature, the biological mechanisms are still poorly understood. In addition, there are major gaps in the literature on effective interventions that could mitigate the effects of food insecurity. Therefore, it is important to increase our understanding regarding the influence of food insecurity on the onset and progression of chronic diseases.

Nutrition security and equitable access to healthy and affordable food in the U.S. are public health concerns. According to the USDA, approximately 13.5 million people in the U.S. have limited access to supermarkets or large grocery stores impacting access to healthy foods. Research shows higher diet quality is associated with proximity to and density of food stores, neighborhood socioeconomic status (SES), and perception of healthy food environments, especially for racial and ethnic minority populations. Food environments, such as lack of access to grocery stores and the presence of fast food restaurants at the neighborhood level, are associated with increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer survival. Elucidating the role of these social and environmental conditions on diet and nutritional status could help to prevent and manage diet-related health disparities and promote health equity. This is therefore an opportunity for future research to advance nutrition equity, including the broad categories below:

  1. Development and testing of interventions, innovative programs, and natural experiments to address food insecurity and neighborhood-level access to healthy and affordable foods;
  2. Research to understand the mechanisms and pathways between food insecurity and neighborhood food environments on wellbeing and health and various health outcomes; and
  3. Studies to develop and validate tools to measure nutrition insecurity and food insecurity.

Learn more and apply here