Panel Paper: Combating Food Insecurity in Low-Income Communities and Communities of Color

Saturday, March 30, 2019
Mary Graydon Center - Room 245 (American University)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Caitlin Frankel, Columbia University

Urban low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately lack access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Grocery stores may be absent in urban low-income areas due to high rent costs, zoning laws, crime rates, and low sales margins if customers are primarily SNAP beneficiaries. Even when grocery stores are present, low-income individuals and families may not be able to afford fresh produce and lean meats. For low-income individuals that rely on SNAP, the monthly allotment is often not enough to purchase a substantial amount of filling and nourishing food items each week. They sometimes must make tough decisions regarding whether they feed themselves and their families, or use their limited financial resources for other necessities, such as rent and utilities. The USDA refers to these individuals and families as “food insecure.” To survive, low-income individuals and families must rely on cheap processed food that is high in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. This food is often purchased in convenience stores, which are much more prevalent in urban low-income neighborhoods. Consuming these food items can lead to obesity.

Many significant ailments are a consequence of obesity, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. In general, low-income individuals have been shown to be far more likely to be obese than their higher-income counterparts. Urban residents also have higher obesity rates than individuals in suburban areas. Healthcare costs due to obesity are estimated to be between $147-210 billion. Obesity also significantly constrains work productivity, impacting the economy as a whole. Currently, work absenteeism due to obesity is estimated to cost employers approximately $4.3 billion annually. Obesity-related health conditions may prevent individuals from working altogether, making them more dependent on public assistance.


  1. Create a national standardized farmers market system that provides SNAP rebates for fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.

FINI grants have made it possible for individual local and state farmers market initiatives to create successful SNAP rebate programs. These programs helped combat food insecurity and have benefitted local economies. SNAP rebate programs should be standardized on a federal level so that all farmers markets can offer rebate programs without having to apply for individual funding.

  1. Create a clear federal grant program that provides funding for local initiatives to increase food access.

Although food insecurity is an issue that spans the country, individual municipalities have unique characteristics and circumstances that may compound this problem on a local level. A standardized federal grant program should be developed that is open to localized alternative means to combat food insecurity. This grant program should go beyond FINI in offering funding for programs that may not necessarily include SNAP.

  1. Expand SNAP to all online grocery services, and establish delivery standards and price regulations.

The USDA is currently pilot testing an online SNAP program with the expectation that SNAP will eventually be expanded to all online grocer services (“Online Purchasing Pilot,” 2018). Delivery standards and price regulations should also be established so that low-income communities can take full advantage of delivery services.