More Thinking and Insights

Food Insecurity and Population Health

May 11, 2021  |  Article


Brian Lash, Managing Partner and CEO

Food insecurity is well understood as a social determinant limitation. Who is affected, and how?

Social barriers take many forms, but perhaps none are more pernicious, nor more widespread, than food insecurity. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem with millions suffering globally. Not surprisingly, addressing food insecurity is a top priority among health professionals everywhere.

Food insecurity defined

Food insecurity is defined as any deficiency in access or availability to affordable, healthy food choices. Causes are numerous, but among the most frequent is the food desert.

What is a food desert?

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources.” Others are more specific and define a food desert as any populated area more than one statute mile from the nearest supermarket.

Where all definitions agree is choice. Individuals in food deserts have less choice, and frequently resort to alternatives including convenience stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants for sustenance. Not only does this translate to expensive and less healthy selections in the near-term, but it has a long-term deteriorating effect on individual health and wellbeing.

Who is affected by food insecurity and food deserts?

Food insecurity can affect anyone, however it is most pronounced among minority populations. Hispanic/Latino and African American households are twice as likely as Caucasian households to face food insecurity and hunger.

Moreover, food insecurity’s greatest incidence is among low-income individuals, and correlates strongly with limited access to healthcare and wellness education.

Food insecurity as a driver of poor health outcomes

Poor diet borne of inadequate access to a diversity of affordable, healthy food options results in a vicious cycle of more unfavorable food choices and still worse outcomes. Too often, the result is hypertension, increased blood sugar levels, and high cholesterol to name a few.

The graphic below demonstrates the likelihood of being diagnosed with a chronic condition due to food insecurity5.

A call to action

Food insecurity is a $53 billion annual drain on the healthcare system that takes many forms — Unnecessary hospitalizations, lower medication adherence, behavioral health issues and greater incidence of chronic conditions to name a few. Worse, it encumbers affected individuals’ ability to live their most enriched lives.

In this light, regular access to affordable, nutritious food is not only a healthcare challenge, but a moral imperative.


1 Silva, C (2020, September 27) Food Insecurity In The U.S. By The Numbers. Retrieved from

2 Morse, S (2019, August 30) SDOH: Food insecurity adds $53 billion annually to healthcare costs. Retrieved from

3 Waxman, E, Gupta. P, Gonzalez, D (2020, October 27) Food Insecurity Edged Back up after COVID-19 Relief Expired. Retrieved from

4 Move For Hunger. Retrieved from

5 Dellwo, J (2020, June 17) The Effect of the Post-COVID Wave on Social Determinants of Health with Sara Ratner. Retrieved from

Ready to learn more? We'd love to hear from you.