Food Insecurity: How It Affects You and How to Get Help

The coronavirus pandemic has been tough economically for many. Millions of people were laid off or furloughed at the start, and many have not been rehired or found new jobs. Some people were able to weather the economic crisis for a while, but it has lasted longer than anyone expected and left many people with food insecurity.

Food insecurity does not mean starvation or even going severely hungry. It means that a person or family lacks consistent access to enough nutritious food to meet basic needs. It means getting by with less nutritious foods, skipping meals, or eating less at each meal. We tend to think of it as affecting only those in poverty, but it also affects many who do not fit the usual definitions of being poor.

Not being able to get enough nutritious food is bad for pregnant women and their young children. A developing baby can be seriously affected by food insecurity during pregnancy. A study published in 2007 found that food insecurity is associated with an increased risk of several types of birth defects, including cleft lip or palate, spina bifida, and abnormalities of the heart. It was also found to associated with depression and anxiety in mothers.

If you are having trouble affording food for yourself or your children, there are several programs and resources that can help you. Do not be embarrassed because you need these resources. Do not let shame prevent you from getting help with feeding yourself and your family.

You are not alone right not if you need help buying food. According to Feeding America, an organization that helps food banks, more than 50 million Americans are or were food insecure during the pandemic. This included about 17 million children.

There are two government programs that help people with food insecurity. One is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (generally known as WIC), which provides federal funds to all fifty states for free healthy food and services to low-income women and children. Other WIC services include nutrition counseling, breastfeeding support, health education, and healthcare referrals. WIC programs are for low-income pregnant women and women who have just given birth whether they are breastfeeding or not, and for infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. It is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and serves about half of all infants born in the United States.

The second government program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, now known as SNAP, but which used to be referred to as food stamps. Although it is a federal program, agencies in each state-run SNAP through local offices. You have to meet certain conditions and income levels to qualify for SNAP. The program provides funds through an electronic benefits card (EBT), which looks like a debit card.

SNAP covers many types of foods, but not nonfood items like soap or tissues. One difference between WIC and SNAP is that WIC will cover baby needs such as diapers, but SNAP does not. A pregnant or breastfeeding woman may qualify for both WIC and SNAP benefits.

Tell your obstetrician, pediatrician, or midwife if you are having trouble buying enough nutritious food for yourself and your children. They can help you find the local offices for SNAP and WIC in your neighborhood and point you to other local programs that can help you.

However, it can take time to apply for state and federal programs. For SNAP, you may be required to show pay stubs, housing information, and utility bills. It may also take some time before you can be qualified and start receiving benefits.

If you need food immediately, you should contact a food bank or food pantry. A food bank is a storehouse for food and other products that are then distributed to food pantries where they can be given out to the people who need them. Local food pantries can provide you with food and other household products like toilet tissue. Food pantries may be run by local churches and synagogues or other nonprofit organizations.

Some food pantries have eligibility guidelines and those may vary. However, many food pantries have very few requirements for those in need. Most food pantries are only open one or two days a week and you may be limited in how often you can use a food pantry in a given month. Call before you go to find out the hours and if you need to bring any documentation. 

To find a local food pantry, check out Feeding America’s website.


Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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