By Leah Harris

Food Insecurity, Mental Health, and the ‘Food as Medicine’ Movement in Alameda County.

Did you know that consistent access to food is one of the most primary social determinants of not only physical health, but mental health as well? And with the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity is increasing in unprecedented ways, including in Alameda County. Michael Altfest, director of community engagement and marketing at Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland told Well + Good: “Our food bank’s been around 35 years, and we’ve never seen an increase in need like this.” 

Just what is food insecurity (FI), exactly? According to a definition from the organization Food Forward, food insecurity refers to “a lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.” “Culturally appropriate” food refers to food that people recognize and know how to prepare. 

A 2017 worldwide study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found a cause and effect link between FI and mental health challenges across all regions of the globe. According to Dr. Andrew D. Jones, one of the study’s principal authors, “Psychosocial stressors…may be amplified with increasing FI. For example, anxiety related to one’s ability to acquire sufficient food in the future may be provoked even under conditions of mild FI, and is likely to increase with moderate and severe FI.” 

Jones adds that the shame caused by the need to steal or acquire food in “socially unacceptable ways”  to survive may further increase poor mental health. “Under conditions of more severe FI, for example, individuals may resort to acquiring food in socially unacceptable ways as a coping strategy. The feelings of shame and guilt associated with this behavior could compound pre-existing anxiety precipitated by mild FI to yield even poorer mental health conditions.”

Luckily, there are several resources available in Alameda County, whether you or someone you know is facing FI, or if you are in a position to help alleviate it. Alameda is an innovator and leader in the “Food as Medicine” movement, having five “food pharmacy” programs in place to help low-income residents access fresh and nutritious food via health clinics. And if it passes, a bill introduced earlier this year in the California legislature could take this concept statewide. Alameda County’s Dig Deep Farms offers several programs, including an agriculture internship for returning citizens.

We can each do our part to help relieve food insecurity and to promote mental health and overall health and well-being, even during these most stressful and uncertain of times. Please check out the resources below for more information on how to get involved.

To help relieve food insecurity in Alameda County:

For Further Exploration: