Though young homeless adults make use of available food programs, these support structures still often fail to provide reliable and consistent access to nutritious food, according to the results of a new study by a University at Buffalo social work researcher.
The findings, which fill an important gap in the research literature, can help refine policies and programs to better serve people experiencing homelessness, particularly those between the ages of 18-24.
“It may be tempting to think of food pantries, soup kitchens and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as the solution,” says Elizabeth Bowen, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work and lead author of the study with Andrew Irish, a UB graduate student in the School of Social Work, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. But these supports are not enough. “We’re still seeing high levels of food insecurity, literal hunger, where people go a whole day without eating anything.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” Hunger is a “potential consequence of food insecurity [that] results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain.” In Bowen’s study, 80 percent of participants were considered to be severely food insecure.
“There has been recent research about housing and shelter use for homeless young adults, as well as work on drug use and sexual risk behaviors for this same population, but I found that not much had been done on the issue of food access,” says Bowen. “It’s hard to even think about housing and health needs if we don’t know how people are eating, or not eating.”
It’s not surprising see a relationship between homelessness and food insecurity, but Bowen warns of oversimplifying what is in fact a more nuanced problem.
“This research is important because we’re establishing a clear indication of food insecurity in this population, which we did not previously have,” she says. “If we’re going to design programs and services that better address food insecurity, along with addressing housing, education and employment, we need to know about the access strategies: How and what are homeless young adults eating? Where are they finding food? What do they have to do to get it? And how does that affect other parts of their lives?”
For her qualitative study, Bowen conducted in-depth interviews with 30 young adults between the ages of 18-24 who were experiencing homelessness in Buffalo, New York.
“Working with this small group gives us insights into the lived experience,” says Bowen. “It’s a way of setting a knowledge foundation and understanding of the topic in the context of people’s lives, and what goes on with their health, housing, relationships, education and trying to get out of homelessness.”
In Bowen’s study, 70 percent of young adults were receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. But actually getting these benefits can be difficult.
SNAP covers dependent children under their parent’s benefits until the child’s 22nd birthday. But the program administers benefits based on the parents’ address and assumes that parents and children of a single family are living together.
“This is clearly a problem for young people experiencing homelessness since many of them are under 22 and obviously aren’t living at the same address as their parents,” says Bowen. “The young people in this case can’t get SNAP on their own because they’re already listed on their parents’ open application for those same benefits – and the burden of proof is on the young person to demonstrate they don’t live with their parents.”
Documentation is required as proof that the family is no longer together, according to Bowen, but in many cases getting the necessary paperwork is difficult because of strained family relationships.
“That’s one avenue for a policy change,” says Bowen.
But even with revised eligibility guidelines, food stamps sometimes are not enough, particularly for homeless young people who have no way to store or prepare food. Bowen notes that this problem would be greatly exacerbated by a change proposed in the 2019 federal budget to convert part of a household’s SNAP benefits from electronic benefits to a box of canned goods and other commodities.
Homeless young adults’ food access challenges are further compounded by the fact that young people are sometimes reluctant to use resources like soup kitchens, or have trouble accessing these places due to transportation barriers and limited hours. This finding mirrors prior research showing how young adults are not comfortable in places meant for the general homeless adult population, according to Bowen.
For instance, where shelter is concerned, an 18-year-old in the city of Buffalo is considered an adult and would go to an adult shelter, which can feel discouraging and unsafe.
“What I found in this study is that people were saying the same things about places to get food. They know about these soup kitchens, but the places feel institutional and stigmatized to young people,” says Bowen. “If we want to develop food programs to be engaging to young people we have to think about breaking down some barriers. For example, because of food insecurity among students, many college campuses are now offering food pantries. I would like to think about how to integrate food pantries and other services into places where young people are going anyway.”
Food Delivery Businesses Showing Up For People Right Now
At difficult times like these, Fred Rogers followed his mother’s sage advice:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
That’s certainly been one of the few bright spots amidst the coronavirus pandemic—people and businesses of all sorts stepping up to help. Many of us have been reminded, in dramatic fashion, just how important our nurses, grocery store workers, and restaurant workers truly are.
Sure, there are still scammers out there, looking to make a buck in a tough situation for many. The food delivery industry has its fair share of heroes and opportunists, just like any sector.
To help you sort through your options, here’s a handy list of food delivery companies that have stepped up their game during the COVID-19 crisis and a bit about how they’ve done so.
These Food Delivery Companies Have Stepped Up Their Support During The Crisis
Doesn’t food just taste better when someone else has lovingly made it for you?
While practicing social distancing, getting delicious food delivered to your door can be one of those simple pleasures. Ordering out safely and ethically can be tricky though.
Here are some delivery services and restaurants that are changing the way they do business amidst the crisis to better support workers and customers alike:
To protect their “Dashers,” the company is shipping 1 million sets of hand sanitizer and gloves as well as offering guidance for contactless delivery (now the company’s default) to help them stay safe. DoorDash has also offered an additional $100 million of targeted commission relief to help small restaurants with five or fewer locations.
If an Instacart worker is placed under mandatory quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19, the company offers up to two weeks’ pay. The policy was initially only valid through mid-March but the company has now extended the offer through early May. Instacart is also allowing their in-store shoppers to accrue sick leave as well.
The company continues to be in negotiations with its workers about the best ways to support them during the crisis.
They’re doing no-contact delivery and they’ve set up a relief fund to assist employees with medical costs related to COVID-19. The company is providing two weeks of paid sick leave should an employee test positive for the virus.
The good news is that Starbucks baristas already have sick leave. The even better news is that the company is expanding its “catastrophe pay” program to employees affected by COVID-19.
For any employee diagnosed with the virus, Starbucks is offering an additional two weeks of paid leave. The same benefit also applies to employees who have had prolonged contact with someone who has been diagnosed or those at heightened risk of contracting it.
The speedy delivery service currently provides its drivers and delivery people (those infected or exposed to the virus) with financial assistance for up to 14 days. UberEats has also stated that they are exploring compensation options for drivers that have been quarantined or diagnosed with the virus. This could take the form of a fund or even a partnership with other companies.
Restaurants offering forms of free delivery
These companies are giving customers a break when it comes to those delivery fees. Here’s the rundown:
- Chipotle: Free delivery on orders over $10
- KFC: Free delivery through the website, Grubhub, or Seamless
- El Pollo Loco: Free delivery on Grubhub
- Denny’s: Free delivery through the website
- Auntie Anne’s: Free delivery over $15
- Bob Evan’s: Free delivery
- Burger King: Free delivery over $20
- Little Caesars: Free delivery
- Taco Bell: Free delivery on your first delivery order of $12 or more (before tax, tip, and fees) on Grubhub
Why Our Food Delivery Services and Restaurants Remain Essential
The word “essential” is being thrown around a lot lately.
Whether it’s to discuss workers that keep our economy running or businesses that literally sustain lives, those companies and people that prepare and deliver our food are crucial.
During these difficult days, per the good advice from Mrs. Rogers, it’s important to keep an eye out for the helpers among them and to support them with our dollars.
An Overabundance of Fast Food: Food Swamps Are the New Food Deserts
Sponsored by Malone University Online
A homemade salad isn’t a realistic option when you have to walk more than a mile to buy ingredients. For millions of people living in low-income communities, it’s more likely they’ll just order a fast-food burger. They live in areas known as “food swamps,” and it’s a growing threat to health throughout the United States.
Compared with the better-known “food desert” phenomenon of areas lacking fresh, healthy options, food swamps are places where unhealthy foods are more accessible than anything else. Unhealthy options outnumber healthy alternatives by as much as four to one in these areas, according to a report in the Boston Globe.
Together, the problems that both food swamps and food deserts create require creativity to overcome, and social workers and nonprofit agencies across the nation are focused on untangling these issues.
A Closer Look at Food Swamps
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stipulates that food deserts are areas with poverty levels of at least 20% where a minimum of either 500 people or 33% of the population lives over a mile from the nearest supermarket.
While food swamps can occasionally overlap with food deserts, they are usually separate. Food swamps, according to the USDA’s definition, are communities where fast food and junk food are overwhelmingly more available than healthy alternatives. This is most frequently caused by chain restaurants and corner stores that stock unhealthy, processed foods.
The spread of food swamps in recent decades has been staggering. A national study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that 60% of the calories Americans buy are from highly processed foods. An article in The Guardian reported that, in many places, drug stores are selling more food than grocery stores are, and that food is typically pre-packaged and lacks nutrients.
To understand the power of food swamps, it’s necessary to study the daily meal choices made by their residents. In 2011, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a 15-year study showing that the presence of supermarkets doesn’t make residents more likely to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. This was especially true for men, who tended to choose quick, processed meals.
The reasons for these unhealthy choices were varied; advertising, cultural norms, and affordability were all factors. While the study focused on food deserts, the findings underscore the concerns with food swamps. There may be healthier options, but most would choose unhealthy options when the unhealthy options are more plentiful.
Food swamps are even more of a problem in neighborhoods where there is greater socio-economic disparity. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health said that “low-income and racial-ethnic minorities are more likely . . . to live near unhealthy food retailers, which has been associated with poor diet.” Those retailers often pack the shelves with processed snack foods, and the Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy found that the amount of shelf space stores reserve for snack foods is associated with higher BMI scores in the neighborhoods those stores serve.
In the larger picture of food swamps and deserts, food swamps have been found to be more directly connected with obesity and other health concerns than food deserts, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Poor food choices impact more than just the waist line, though. Heavily processed foods rich in fats and sugars can lead to chronic inflammation and unbalanced gut microbiome, which early research has indicated may have a negative impact on brain chemistry. This negative impact can result in mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and an inability to regulate mood.
Moreover, poor diets can result in other health concerns, such as diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes-related problems cost patients millions in medical bills every year. For residents in low-income communities, this perpetuates the cycle of poverty through increased debt and financial stress.
Policies Designed to End Food Swamps
The complex problem of food swamps isn’t easy to solve, but groups have been implementing different initiatives. Often, collaboration among public, private, and nonprofit agencies has been necessary to effect this much-needed change. For example, a group called Healthy Retail SF has partnered with 1,150 mom and pop stores in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to add more healthy and affordable food options to its food swamp.
In Baltimore, new programs have moved farmers’ markets to the city center. These programs have also implemented new measures that allow food vouchers to be used at these markets to encourage the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income seniors.
Meanwhile, The Food Trust has been working in a food swamp in Philadelphia to provide education in schools and communities about cooking healthy meals. They’re also advocating for initiatives that let SNAP recipients get more for their money when they make healthier food purchases.
In the food swamps of Washington, D.C., a group called D.C. Central Kitchen is stocking shelves of corner stores with fresh-cut fruit and ready-made meals with healthier ingredients. Another collective, called D.C. Urban Gardeners Network, has been making a push for more agricultural gardens throughout the city.
Food swamps are a pervasive and complicated issue in neighborhoods throughout the United States, and social workers are continuing to study their causes and explore new remedies. If you’re interested in helping resolve food swamps, food deserts, and more consider earning an online bachelor of social work from Malone University Online. Our program provides field instruction, giving you the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience. Working alongside our exceptional faculty, you’ll gain the mentorship and guidance you need from seasoned professionals with years of real-world experience.
8 Common Food Myths Debunked
There are hundreds of common myths and misconceptions about food which may influence your diet choices. However, some foods commonly believed to be unhealthy are actually just fine and some popular “healthy” foods are actually harmful. Here are eight common food myths debunked:
1. Low-fat Foods are Always Healthier.
Some types of fat are unhealthy, but others are an important part of a healthy diet. When foods are made low fat, the fat content is usually replaced with sugar or sodium to improve the taste. This definitely does not make it healthier, but many people associate fat with weight gain and heart attacks. Therefore, they choose “low-fat” foods even though the foods have an unhealthy amount of sugar or sodium.
2. You Need to Eat Dairy for Healthy Bones.
People tend to confuse dairy with calcium, so it’s a common myth you need dairy for strong bones. It’s true that dairy has lots of calcium, but plenty of other foods do as well. You can eat greens, broccoli, oranges, beans, and nuts to get enough calcium to keep your bones healthy.
3. Eggs Raise Your Cholesterol Levels.
Your cholesterol levels are mostly influenced by saturated and trans fats, and eggs contain very little of both. Eggs contain lots of important nutrients, so cutting them out of your diet to lower your cholesterol levels can actually be harmful. It won’t affect your cholesterol and it will prevent you from getting all the health benefits eggs have.
4. All Food Additives are Bad for You.
Some people believe all food additives are made of harmful, toxic chemicals. While some aren’t very healthy, most are completely fine. The panic over food additives mostly stems from a lack of understanding. For example, many people believe the additive carrageenan is toxic because it’s been proven to cause inflammation in lab animals. However, studies show human bodies don’t absorb or metabolize it, so it flows through the body without causing any harm.
5. Restricting Salt Prevents Heart Attacks.
Lowering your salt intake can reduce your blood pressure, but there’s no scientific evidence supporting the idea that restricting salt reduces your risk of a heart attack or stroke. If your doctor tells you to cut back on salt, you should listen. However, it’s a myth everyone needs to lower their salt intake to be safe and healthy.
6. High Fructose Corn Syrup is Worse than Sugar.
Many foods are labeled “No HFCS” as if this makes them healthier and many people buy these items because they’re so afraid of high fructose corn syrup. It actually is very similar to sucrose, or table sugar, in many ways. The composition of high fructose corn syrup is almost identical to that of table sugar and both have the same number of calories. They both have similar effects on insulin and glucose levels. Neither are particularly healthy, but one isn’t worse than the other.
7. All Organic Food is Healthy.
Organic food is free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other additives found in most non-organic foods. Choosing organic produce can reduce your chemical exposure, but junk food labeled “organic” is still junk food. You can buy organic chips, cookies, or crackers, but they’ll still have as much sugar and empty calories as their non-organic counterparts.
8. Coffee Makes You Dehydrated.
Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it does dehydrate you. However, coffee has a very mild dehydrating effect and all of the water it contains will make up for any fluid you lose. Coffee also contains lots of antioxidants, so you don’t have to worry about drinking a cup or two every morning.
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