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Health

Women and food insecurity – and what you can do to help

Food insecurity is a complex issue that affects women and girls globally. Here’s how you can make a difference

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Inequality is overreaching. It finds a way into every area of life, altering its every aspect, affecting the most vulnerable in so many ways.

Food insecurity is just one reflection of inequality.

Food insecurity is an inability to provide enough food for yourself or your household to live a healthy life. Like many types of inequality, it’s an extremely complex issue – and it hits women especially hard. Of the 821 million people who are food insecure in the world right now, 60% are women and girls.

“The many ways in which food insecurity affects women and girls are borne from cultural and social norms and structures,” says Sarah Fuhrman, humanitarian policy specialist for CARE. “Patriarchal norms mean that women and girls are valued less than men and boys and so eat last and least in many places. As a result, women and girls are at great risk of the short- and long-term mental and physical health consequences associated with food insecurity.”

It’s impossible to address food insecurity without addressing the ways it affects women, yet they’re often overlooked. To even begin solving this issue, we must fully understand the problem – and involve those it most impacts in the decision-making process.

Where food insecurity among women comes from – and where it leads

The reason food insecurity is so difficult to solve is the deep interconnection between its underlying causes and results, including poverty, unemployment or underemployment and lack of access to food. This is especially true for women who face discrimination in many areas of their lives.

“It’s important to note that cultural and social norms often mean that women, and other groups of people who are discriminated against because of their identities, are shunted into lower-paying jobs that are of lower-perceived value,” Fuhrman says.

These social norms can also result in the pressure women face to feed their families, which, in turn, can force women to engage in sex work and increase their risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Domestic violence can be a consequence of food insecurity – and its cause, too. In fact, the California Women’s Health Survey published in 2015 found a strong association between food insecurity and intimate partner violence and higher odds of intimate partner violence among those reporting more severe food insecurity.

See related: Navigating financial help when leaving an abusive relationship

It’s easy to see how food insecurity can affect every aspect of a woman’s life. If you skip just one meal, you’ll notice the effect on your body and levels of energy and concentration. If it becomes a pattern, every part of your life may change.

“Over the long-term, food insecurity can endanger almost every aspect of a person’s mental and physical health and could have long-term ramifications,” Fuhrman explains. “Those health consequences – combined with the risks of intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and abuse and child, early and forced marriage that food insecurity also exposes women and girls to – mean that millions of women and girls around the world are not able to reach their potential. This has a tremendous negative effect on local and global societies.”

How do we even start tackling such an all-encompassing, global issue?  We can do so by not closing the eyes on the problem and educating ourselves.

Gender food insecurity in the world

According to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nearly 690 million people (8.9% of the world population) were hungry in 2019 – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years. Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are the regions with the highest number of undernourished people.

The data also suggests that considering the total affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, an estimated 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food in 2019.

The report states that the prevalence of food insecurity at moderate or severe level and severe level only is higher among women than men at the global level, especially in Africa and Latin America. After controlling for socioeconomic characteristics, women had about 13% higher chance of experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity and close to 27% higher chance of being severely food insecure.

At the same time, according to World Food Programme data from 2004, 80% of productive labor in rural Africa and 60% in Asia is provided by women.

While it’s men who are often called “breadwinners,” it’s women who are responsible for actually producing the food, as well as feeding their families. They’re workers, wives and caretakers – all at the same time.

“Women and girls do 85-90% of household food preparation and most of the food shopping around the world, and those responsibilities doesn’t stop just because the money dries up,” Fuhrman explains. “This puts tremendous pressure on women and girls to do whatever is necessary to feed their families, which can increase their risk of harm.”

Gender food insecurity in the United States

Northern America and Europe represented less than 1% of the world’s undernourished population in 2019, according to FAO. Yet, when you look closer, it becomes clear that food insecurity is still a serious issue in the United States.

A report from USDA suggests that 11.1% percent of American households experienced food insecurity in 2018. That’s over 14 million households.

That’s over 14 million people who at some point were worried whether their food would run out before they get money to buy more. That’s 14 million people who were hungry because they couldn’t afford to feed themselves – and some of them could go a whole day without eating.

Rates were higher for families with children headed by a single woman (27.8%) and women living alone (14.2%).

While the U.S. may have more resources to support people struggling with food insecurity than developing countries, and women may have more opportunities to gain financial independence, the reasons behind the issue resemble those anywhere else in the world. Women are still paid less for their labor, subjected to employment discrimination and disproportionally affected by domestic violence.

And through it all, they have kids to take care of.

“Unpartnered women are much more likely than unpartnered men to be responsible for dependent minors under their care,” says Tess Barbach, FNP-C, deputy chief medical officer and family nurse practitioner at Ritter Center, a nonprofit organization assisting homeless and low-income populations.  “Women often have more mouths to feed with similar or decreased resources compared to men.”

These are not only women that live below the poverty line. Often food insecurity happens because of the uncertainties of daily life. An emergency hospital visit or car repair can deplete one’s funds, and an unexpected job loss can push people into a financial survival mode that leaves little budget for groceries.

“[Hunger] looks like you and me,” says chef and motivational speaker Carla Hall. “There’s not a particular face. It’s not just people who are homeless or people who are the working poor.”

In the time of COVID-19, this is more accurate than ever. The pandemic has wrought havoc on global economies, threatening jobs and livelihoods – and it’s been hitting women especially hard.

How COVID-19 is worsening gender food insecurity

A hunger crisis is a kind of pandemic in itself, but COVID-19 is making the situation even direr. According to UN estimates, while at the start of 2020 there were 690 million undernourished and chronically hungry people, this figure could go up by over 130 million because of COVID-19. Moreover, severe food insecurity could nearly double and affect 270 million people by the end of the year.

Countries that suffer the most from food insecurity have seen the numbers of people experiencing food insecurity double or even triple.

Wealthier countries are feeling the impact as well: In the U.K., one in four adults are struggling to afford food, and in the U.S., 6 million people have registered for food benefits since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are bringing to light the flaws in the food systems, revealing how many of them stem from gender discrimination and inequality.

Hunger stemming from the coronavirus pandemic is hitting women the hardest. Barbach explains that reasons include “additional restrictions linked to COVID-19, such as restricted work hours (which often disproportionately affect women, since women tend to have more family responsibilities outside of the workplace) and sexist programs in many countries that restrict services such as cash for work, food, and financial assistance, to male heads of households.”

See related: 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September

“We cannot address food insecurity without addressing the particular ways in which it affects women and girls, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what many organizations are trying to do,” Fuhrman says. “A recent CARE study found that nearly half (46%) of more than 70 reports proposing solutions to the COVID-19-driven hunger pandemic did not refer to women and girls at all. Less than 7% of the reports proposed concrete actions to resolve the gender inequalities that cripple food systems. How can we help women and girls if we render them invisible?”

Despite the enormity of the issue, the first step to the solution then becomes clear: We have to finally see.

“It’s easier to connect with people when you see them than when they’re invisible,” Hall says. “Even going throughout your day, just looking at people, even driving by a food shelter and seeing the people who are there. I see them, and they’re not invisible. It’s that sense of community and bringing people together during these difficult times that help us emerge from this together and stronger.”

What you can do to help fight gender food insecurity

The complexity and globality of hunger and food insecurity can be overwhelming. Even if you’re eager to help, you might feel like whatever you do, your efforts will be insignificant.

This isn’t true. Food insecurity is the kind of issue that only has a chance to be resolved if people come together and do whatever they can to help. Even if it doesn’t seem like a lot, it can make a difference in someone’s life.  When such actions are multiplied, they can create a shift in the bigger picture.

If you’d like to help, there are different ways to do it. Whether you try a few of them or focus on one, it’s an opportunity for you to make a difference.

For example, Hall uses her talent in cooking to give back.

“What am I good at? I cook food,” she says. “What do people need? They need food. So, throughout my career, that’s how I’ve given back. I also associate with organizations that actually do the same thing.”

Right now, Hall is working with the Gateway to Giving campaign through the United Gateway Card. The campaign is donating $700,000 to support Feeding America and local member food banks in United’s seven hub markets.

“I’ve been working with Feeding America for pretty much my entire culinary career, as well as other organizations that deal with food insecurity,” she shares. “That $700,000 will provide nearly 7 million meals to local food banks across the country this holiday season.”

This brings us to one of the easiest ways to get involved and make a difference: donate.

Donate

There are countless ways to donate and many organizations that will turn your donations into efforts to fight hunger and food insecurity.

See related: Women’s guide to charitable giving

Here are some of the organizations you should consider donating to:

  • CARE – CARE works tirelessly to shed the light on gender inequality and fight for women and girls all around the world.
  • UN World Food Programme – This is the largest humanitarian organization in the world.
  • Feeding America – Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S.
  • Grameen Foundation – This organization designs finance and farming solutions to help poor people in developing countries, then recruits some of these people (mostly women) to become community agents and deliver these tools to their communities.
  • The Hunger Project – The Hunger Project is another amazing organization that focuses on women and girls fighting hunger.

There are other options too, including local charities, food banks and women’s shelters. It’s always good to do your own research to find an organization you feel good donating to.

Your donation doesn’t always have to be monetary – donating food can make a huge difference in your community.

Spread the word

Bringing attention to the problem may be simple, but it’s also extremely important. We can’t tackle such an enormous issue such as gender food insecurity if we don’t talk about it.

“I don’t think people actually know what hunger looks like,” Hall says. She offers ways you can share information:

“Spreading the word, letting people know where their food banks are and sharing this information on social media. Thinking of ways to do it in a way that is with dignity for people so there is no shame around it. Having links … on your Facebook page and sharing, those are all little ways that people can help,” she says

If you want to take it a step further, bring up the issue with your local authorities. Barbarch suggests advocating with your local and state representatives to protect SNAP (the program that offers food stamps) and WIC (a nutritional program for women, infants and children), which help thousands of people get the food they desperately need every month.

Volunteer

If you prefer helping by being inside the action, volunteering can be an excellent choice for you. It’s also a job crucial to helping charity organizations function. According to Feeding America, 51% of all food programs rely entirely on volunteers.

Connect with charity organizations and food banks in your area to see what kind of help they may need. For instance, you may be packing food for distribution, assisting at drive-thru pantries or delivering meals.

You can even volunteer from home. Due to the pandemic, some food banks allow their volunteers help online by fundraising and spreading awareness.

Whichever your preferred way to help is, the main thing is to start. If you do your part, however small it seems to you, you can be sure it’ll help someone feed their family.

The bottom line

Food insecurity is a global issue that affects millions of people, the majority of whom are women.

Each of us can take action to become part of the solution, but before we can truly succeed, we have to recognize how much this problem affects women and how crucial it is to involve them in changing the situation.

“The way forward is clear,” Fuhrman concludes. “We must involve women and girls in addressing food insecurity around the world, and then we must continue involving them to address the issues that they and the rest of the global community face. We cannot “solve” anything if we leave half of the world’s population out of the decision-making process.”

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