Food Insecurity and Related Health Problems Surge in Pandemic

By: Taylor Andres

Millions of Americans face food insecurity every day, and since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the number has drastically increased. Although social distancing protocols serve an important role in flattening the curve and reducing the spread of COVID-19, the unintended consequence has been an onslaught of unemployment claims, leaving countless Americans unsure of their income.

“Food insecurity is a problem that is widespread across the nation and in Allegheny County. It goes hand-in-hand with poverty, which is a significant risk factor for food insecurity,” said Daniel Salahuddin, M.D., M.P.H., a third-year resident in the Combined Family Medicine & Psychiatry Residency Program at UPMC McKeesport. “This is a major problem. People may be forced into rationing food or may be faced with decisions such as choosing to buy food or to buy medication. As a result of an increased overall burden of food insecurity from the COVID-19-related economic fallout, our safety nets and community resources will be facing even greater demand. That could lead to inequitable distribution and increased disparities.”

Although there are food banks offering curbside, contactless pick-ups, not everyone has the ability to drive to these facilities, and many at-risk people feel unsafe using public transportation options to pick-up food.

Additionally, various soup kitchens and in-person food distribution centers have been forced to close their doors due to potential exposure concerns, leaving the people who relied on them looking for different resources.

While it has been well-documented that the stress of isolation and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has serious mental health implications, an additional layer of mental strain exists for those experiencing food insecurity.

“Food insecurity affects your general sense of safety and security in the world. This, in turn, can increase toxic stress, which has the potential to start a vicious cycle of trauma,” said Salahuddin.

Additionally, the stress from food insecurity can make people more susceptible to catching COVID-19.

“As you become increasingly stressed, cortisol levels increase throughout your body, which can result in a decreased immune response. So, your immune system doesn’t function as well as it usually does, and you may get sick easier than you otherwise may have. That has tremendous implications for COVID-19 as it relates to variations in immunity,” explained Salahuddin. “Food insecurity presents yet another risk factor for marginalized individuals and communities. Based on preliminary data, we know that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting black and brown communities, and food insecurity further perpetuates the disparity.”

Food insecurity increases the risk of other health complications as well. Quality, nutritious foods tend to be more expensive than less healthy options, resulting in an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease among those facing food insecurity. Additionally, these healthier food options are often not available in communities disproportionately affected by food insecurity.

Information on food distribution sites, including delivery options, throughout Allegheny County can be found here.

If you live in Allegheny County and need emotional support, resolve Crisis Services is available for free 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by calling 1-888-796-8226.

Outside of Allegheny County, the Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a round-the-clock  national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people experiencing emotional distress.