Food insecurity was a complex issue long before COVID-19 became a household name. Among its myriad side effects, the global pandemic also served to compound the problem of food insecurity even further. The charitable organization Feeding America estimates that food insecurity could affect some 42 million Americans in 2021.
Yet some areas are more adversely affected than others within the U.S., and food insecurity numbers vary considerably between states. A recent United Way report placed Nevada, Mississippi, and Louisiana at the top of the list in terms of food insecurity post-COVID. As the impact of food insecurity is dependent on numerous factors, many of which are region- or climate-specific, combating food insecurity thus starts at the local level.
In urban areas across the nation, especially those considered food deserts, community leaders have already made strides towards increased food security in their neighborhoods. No matter where you live, you can follow suit and help improve community health by working to alleviate food insecurity. Even as the pandemic continues to impact daily life, localized solutions run the gamut from community farms and fridges to programs aimed at reducing food waste.
Causes and Effects of Food Insecurity
Since the early days of the COVID pandemic, the world has seen a continued disruption of the food supply chain, resulting in increased costs, for consumers and producers alike. According to the USDA, temporary supply disruptions and demand changes are to blame for the nation’s rising food costs. The meat industry has seen the greatest increase in retail food prices, a change that’s directly linked to COVID-19 and increased demand over supply.
The retail cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has also increased amid COVID-19, by about 1.5%. Community gardens can help alleviate that cost burden, which may be significant to those struggling with food insecurity. But the benefits of neighborhood gardens and food-sharing programs span well beyond economic considerations — they can also improve public health.
Around the world, humans are growing increasingly discontent with isolation. Along with food insecurity, community gardens may also help foster much-needed social connections. Community gardens “serve as spaces to cultivate social support and emotional well-being,” writes Luz Mercado for the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Thus, by organizing and maintaining a neighborhood garden, you can help bring your neighborhood closer together while also reducing food costs for low-income residents.
Combating Hunger While Addressing Food Waste
When working to reduce food insecurity, whether via a community garden or other means, there are several factors to consider that may help boost your efforts. You may opt to tackle several localized, related problems at once: for example, by pairing food insecurity with the issue of food waste. Despite the rising levels of food insecurity around the world, a significant chunk of edible food is thrown away uneaten.
Approximately 40% of all food produced around the world is wasted on an annual basis, equaling more than 2.5 billion tons. This number includes organic waste originating from farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and households. No matter its origin, food waste thus holds the key to reducing food insecurity. Rather than simply tossing aside produce and prepared foods, businesses
Reducing food waste can also be achieved on an individual level. You can divert household food waste away from the trash can to more sustainable avenues by simply thinking outside the box. Discarded eggshells, for instance, can be used as a natural pest repellent in your garden. Coffee grounds are another natural insecticide, and can also boost nitrogen levels in soil. Within community gardens, composting may be the best option for reducing food waste on a larger scale.
Prioritizing Safety and Public Health
When addressing food insecurity, you’ll also need to consider the various regulations and mandates related to COVID-19 that exist in your area. Community gardens may be subject to mask mandates or ordinances that limit the number of people allowed inside at any given time. And in terms of public health, the global food supply, and hunger, COVID isn’t the only potential danger out there.
Community leaders and novice gardeners must also be aware of the various dangers that can lurk in gardening. Produce that’s grown outdoors is especially susceptible to contamination, from natural and man-made sources alike. Before establishing a community or household garden, be sure to test the soil for nutrient levels as well as the presence of toxins or contaminants.
Residents of neighborhoods built before 1990 should be particularly wary in this regard. Up until that time, the bulk of gardening soil sold in the U.S. contained vermiculite. A naturally occurring mineral, vermiculite is a lightweight granulecommonly used as a soil conditioner, mined alongside asbestos ore, a dangerous substance linked to numerous forms of cancer, including mesothelioma. Today, vermiculite is now heavily regulated in the U.S. and subject to stringent testing before being added to soil.
Food insecurity is a growing issue with no end in sight, at least until the world gets a handle on COVID-19. Until then, you can help combat the issue in many ways, starting at the local level. By feeding our neighbors and striving to reduce food waste, we can improve public health and wellbeing, and work towards widespread food security for all.