Understanding the Desperation Causing Low-Income Americans' Eating Behaviors

Understanding hunger and nutrition in low-income America
Understanding hunger and nutrition
in low-income America

Assessing the problem is the first step in finding a solution. RTI public health researcher Andrea Anater, PhD, led a study, published in FY2011, that examined the lengths low-income Americans go to when they are worried about having enough food for themselves and their families.

She found that people are scavenging from dumpsters, selling blood, and turning to crime as a means of feeding themselves in today's tough economic environment.

Anater conducted the study with researchers from Rutgers University Food Policy Institute and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It was published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition.

"We know that there are numerous federal and nongovernmental assistance programs out there to ensure Americans have enough to eat, but we also know there is a gap where people are still going hungry," Anater said.

Our study, which collected information from almost 500 people at 50 food pantries and soup kitchens in the state of New Jersey, explored the prevalence rates and potential risks of the practices of those interviewed.

"Understanding what it is individuals are doing and the frequency at which they are doing it is critical," said Anater. "In addition to the humane concerns, negative health effects pose serious consequences to the individual, household, community, and larger society."

Some of the reported practices to obtain food are commonly used and publicly acceptable, such as using coupons, buying products when they are on sale, and buying in bulk. Others were more extreme, such as diluting baby formula, pawning items to have money for food, and eating roadkill.

The research showed that while all of the participants received food from soup kitchens or food pantries and almost half Food Stamps, 81 percent of the participants still indicated reduced diet quality, disruption of normal eating patterns, or reduction in food intake during the 12-month period prior to the survey.

"Low-income individuals are using risky practices to make up for gaps between the 'safety net' and their food needs," Anater said. "This gap poses significant implications for researchers and policymakers that we are all challenged to address."