The Hidden Mental Health Impact Of Cultural Food Insecurity – Yahoo News

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Ripe guava fruits

Ripe guava fruits

Fresh guavas and papayas. Tortillas paired with beans, cheese and chorizo. Those foods made up Carlos Colindres’ snacks and breakfasts as a kid growing up in Honduras. But when he moved to Maryland at 13 years old, he found himself stuck eating bowls of milk and cereal and mangoes imported from Florida during school-provided breakfasts. 

“I found that very, in a way, frustrating. Like, ‘Man, drinking milk again?’ you know,” he recalled. “I used to tell my mom all the time, ‘Will we ever be able to find what we want at stores whenever we go grocery shopping?’”

Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, he remembers the Honduran staples his family enjoyed becoming more accessible in local grocery stores, and it’s now relatively easy for him to find them at markets near his home in the Fairfax, Virginia, area. 

But some things are still missing. “[I] just wanted to taste certain types of foods, some dishes, some fruits, for example, that they just won’t bring here. For the longest time, I had that nostalgia.” So in 2017, Colindres returned to Honduras for the first time since he was a teenager to satisfy those years-long cravings.

When he arrived at his sisters’ house, he was greeted with the smell of his favorite dish from his childhood: nacarigüe, or corn rice soup. The next day, Colindres stopped by the mercado and polished off plenty of local produce that, while delicious, gave him a stomach bug and ultimately landed him in the hospital, he recalled.

“That nostalgia, having not been able to have that taste in your mouth for so long, you know, it was great having that feeling back,” he said. “I paid the consequences, but I think it was all worth it.” 

Colindres isn’t the only one yearning for the comfort of foods tied to their culture. To varying degrees, first- and second-generation immigrants, refugees, Native Americans, and people of color across the U.S. are struggling to obtain, eat and share culturally appropriate foods. And it’s an issue that may only heighten as levels of food insecurity rise. The problem: Lacking access to culturally relevant foods can harm mental well-being.

The State Of Cultural Food Insecurity In The U.S.

Food insecurity isn’t just the famine and extreme malnutrition you might see in a commercial for an international hunger relief organization, though it’s certainly a real case. Often, it’s happening right in your backyard, explained Rebecca Hagedorn-Hatfield, a registered dietician nutritionist and assistant professor of food and nutrition at Meredith College who studies college food insecurity.

In 2022, 12.8% of U.S. households — amounting to 17 million — were food insecure, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Specifically, at times throughout the year, these households were unsure of having or unable to have enough food to meet each person’s needs for a healthy, active life due to insufficient money or resources, per the USDA’s standards. That’s up from 10.2%, 13.5 million households, in 2021.

Food should fill all of your well-being and make you feel whole and satiated in more ways than just satiating hunger.Kathrine Wright

The USDA’s understanding of food insecurity neglects culturally appropriate foods. It’s no surprise; historically, culturally preferred foods have been left out of the food security conversation, Hagedorn-Hatfield said. 

“That can largely go into the fact that our food system, in a way, has very much been Eurocentric; we have a lot of Western foods that have dominated, and even a lot of the resources that we have used to promote healthy access to food oftentimes have this more Eurocentric focus,” she explained. An oft-promoted nutritious meal in the U.S., for example, might be a plate of chicken, broccoli and rice. But that dinner isn’t going to be culturally appropriate to all populations.

Cultural food insecurity itself wasn’t clearly defined until 2008, when Elaine Power described it as having unreliable access to traditional foods through traditional practices. A decade later, Elena Briones Alonso and colleagues expanded on that definition to include four key pillars: access, availability, utilization (think: food preparation, sharing, and consumption) and stability. 

That means the scale of cultural food insecurity in the U.S. isn’t so clear. Some smaller organizations, such as food banks, have developed their own methods to assess its prevalence, but nothing has been standardized, said Kathrine Wright, who has a PhD and a masters in public health. Without any nationally representative data, it’s tough to know just how widespread the issue is, she said. “But in the United States, we’ve been going through an immigration boom for the last few decades,” Wright said. “Just combining all that together, it’s most likely a big issue that’s really not being addressed.”

Marginalized groups in the U.S. have historically experienced higher rates of food insecurity; more than 22% of Black and nearly 21% of Hispanic households were food insecure in 2022, according to USDA data. That’s an increase of 2.6% and 4.6%, respectively, from 2021. “By association, they’re going to experience higher rates of cultural food insecurity,” Wright said. The same goes for Native American households, 23% of which were food insecure in 2022, an outcome of centuries of federal policies that disrupted tribal foodways and systems. In comparison, only 9% of white households were food insecure during the same year, USDA data shows.

People who decide what’s available in food banks or pantries may not be having conversations with community members about preferred foods and then prioritizing those needs.People who decide what’s available in food banks or pantries may not be having conversations with community members about preferred foods and then prioritizing those needs.

People who decide what’s available in food banks or pantries may not be having conversations with community members about preferred foods and then prioritizing those needs.

People who decide what’s available in food banks or pantries may not be having conversations with community members about preferred foods and then prioritizing those needs.

When food stores that do offer culturally appropriate foods are nearby, transportation barriers can make it challenging for some individuals to actually access them, said Mya Price, the director of Feeding America’s Food Security Equity Impact Fund. Where traditional foods are offered, they may not be fresh or affordable, Wright added.

In some communities, the problem is compounded by a lack of awareness among advocates and policymakers who aren’t on the ground, Price notes. The folks deciding what’s available in food banks or pantries, for instance, may not be having conversations with community members about preferred foods and then prioritizing those needs.

“If somebody comes to a food pantry to access food and it’s something that they’re not familiar with, how are they going to use it?” Hagedorn-Hatfield added. “At the end of the day, if it’s not something that is appropriate for their culture if we’re forcing them to use it, that’s not beneficial.”

How Cultural Food Access Affects Well-Being 

Growing up food insecure and in poverty, Wright was often told that “beggars can’t be choosers.” She remembers eating the boxed mac and cheese her family got from food pantries day after day after day. That type of experience “kind of just wreaks havoc on your soul,” she said. “You don’t feel very good mentally, emotionally and physically. And that’s been the sentiment as well when it comes to cultural food insecurity.”

Food isn’t just a vessel of nutrients that keeps your body running. It’s a staple at every social and familial function. It’s a comfort, a coping mechanism, says Hagedorn-Hatfield. And it’s also central to identity. Foodways — the preparing, sharing and consuming of food — help you preserve and pass on your cultural identity. Without them, people are likely to experience acculturative stress and culture shock, which directly and negatively impact one’s identity and well-being. 

“It tends to be seen as abandoning one’s community [or] family religion, like letting your ancestors down,” Wright explained. “And so this emotional stress that’s brought on by the loss of culture may not be alleviated, which can lead to negative impacts for mental health.” That includes a lack of enjoyment while eating, sluggishness, loneliness, depression, anxiety and feelings of sadness, shame, guilt and disconnect from one’s identity, which Wright and her colleagues found in a 2021 qualitative study

On the flip side, being able to embrace those cultural foodways can enhance well-being. In a 2023 review of the relationship between diet and mental health of immigrants in Western societies, researchers found that eating culturally appropriate foods appeared to help with mental health issues and enhanced immigrants’ well-being. 

It comes down to the psychological safety and nostalgia that familiar foods from your culture provide, says Maggie Moon, a registered dietitian and brain health nutrition expert. Recent research suggests that food-evoked nostalgia is linked to positive affect, self-esteem, social connectedness and meaning of life, while another trial found a link between feeling nostalgic and eating more healthfully. 

“When [people] think about their comfort foods and their nostalgic foods, it generally takes them back to a time when they were safe, when someone was taking care of them — and often that’s childhood,” Moon said. 

When Price was collecting stories from Black community members in New Orleans as part of her research, she asked questions like, “What does it mean to be healthy?” and “What foods make you feel good as a community and as an individual?” Time and again, Black elders spoke to the importance of staples that have historically had strong cultural connections, such as fish, greens and beans. “Some of those rich items that are tied to the New Orleans style and culture play such a key component to how they live each and every day,” she said. “They talked not only about how those items are meaningful, but how they celebrate those items and how it makes them feel good as individuals.”

How Mental Health Can Affect Physical Health

That feeling of improved well-being extends to physical health, too. For example, individuals who migrate to Western countries may begin to or further shift their diet from one that’s healthy and plant-based toward one that’s high in fatty, processed, and energy-dense foods, known as the global nutrition transition. “The literature also states that preservation of traditional dietary habits and the prevention of acculturation to the American diet is better for one’s health generally,” Wright said. “Immigrants tend to experience an increased risk of developing diabetes, obesity, depression and other chronic diseases by switching to an American diet.”

This combination of poor mental and physical health due, in part, to a lack of cultural food access has the potential to become a positive feedback loop. Greater psychological distress predicted less fruit and vegetable intake and physical activity in a 2019 study of nearly 55,000 Canadian adults. And past physical health can have strong effects on current mental health, research suggests.

Immigrants tend to experience an increased risk of developing diabetes, obesity, depression and other chronic diseases by switching to an American diet.Kathrine Wright

“There’s often this idea that ‘food is food,’ and cultural food security is often seen as a low priority,” Wright said. “Through [my] research, I’ve been trying to change that mindset. Food should fill all of your well-being and make you feel whole and satiated in more ways than just satiating hunger.”

Working Toward A Future With Cultural Food Access

Substantial progress toward adequate cultural food access can’t be made without state and federal government efforts, Hagedorn-Hatfield said.

Federal nutrition programs — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) — are helping families dealing with food insecurity purchase foods that sync with their cultural, dietary or religious needs, says Kelly Horton, the chief program officer for the Food Research & Action Center. In October 2021, maximum SNAP benefits were increased by 21% to more accurately reflect the cost of a healthy diet. “[People] are now getting more dollars per day to be able to purchase more food, and we see that folks are using that to purchase more healthy foods,” specifically fruits and vegetables, Horton said. 

There’s also the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, which supports projects aiming to help low-income individuals purchase more fruits and vegetables, such as Double Up Food Bucks and produce prescription programs. 

Some communities are seeing funding that specifically works to support cultural food access. In 2022, the Biden administration released the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health to improve food access and affordability. Under that strategy, additional funds have been put toward Native American Self-Determination Demonstration Projects, allowing tribal communities participating in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) to purchase foods — particularly ones that meet cultural preferences — and utilize vendors of their choosing, including tribal vendors.

But those efforts are just one small step in the right direction and come with limitations. Some Republican lawmakers have proposed reversing the 2021 increase in SNAP benefits, which threatens access to both nutritious and culturally appropriate food, says Horton. Demonstration projects aren’t permanent, and in rural areas, sites with culturally relevant options may not be set up to accept SNAP, Hagedorn-Hatfield added.

Plus, immigrants or refugees may not know SNAP is available or feel comfortable enrolling due to immigration status or language barriers. “It’s a great program — it’s increasing food access as a whole,” Hagedorn-Hatfield noted. “But when we think about those specific populations that we’re not seeing having access to food, specifically not having access to cultural food, there’s definitely room for those programs to [improve]…so that populations can access the food that makes the most sense for them.”

To support cultural food access at a local level, community members need to be a part of the solution. Take the San Xavier Cooperative Farm in Arizona, for instance. Sixty-five miles west of Tucson, the 2.8 million-acre Tohono O’odham Nation has just one grocery store that often has high prices. But some individuals have rallied together to grow more tepary beans — a dietary staple whose annual yield on the Nation shrunk from about 1 million in the 1920s to a couple hundred pounds in the 2000s, said Amy Juan, the Farm’s administration manager. Today, the Farm is revitalizing traditional foodways: The members are growing a few thousand pounds of tepary beans each year, encouraging kids to become the next generation of farmers and optimizing seed-saving efforts to ensure there’s enough to meet the Nation’s demands in the future.

At food banks and pantries, it’s not the volunteers who should decide which items are distributed to folks in need. “Everyone has their own dietary patterns, and there are reasons behind that — religious reasons, ethical reasons, cultural reasons,” Hagedorn-Hatfield said. “Our job in the food safety net is to make sure that people have access to those foods [that fit], not access to the foods that we deem appropriate.” That means asking locals which foods they want and need from, for instance, a food pantry and what barriers may be preventing them from utilizing the offerings.

Individual efforts shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Host a food drive in your community, specifying the need for foods that are appropriate for your neighbors’ cultures or religions. If you’re able, spend your dollars at small cultural grocery stores rather than big-box retailers, suggests Wright. Supporting your local food system — its growers, advocates and community initiatives — can make a significant difference in reducing food access disparities. “The local food system is the future,” Price said, “and it will continue to be that way.”


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