“… individuals who are using food pantries, we found the nutrients that they were getting from the food pantry was actually contributing more of, a lot of really helpful things like fiber, fruit, grains, oils, vitamin D, K, and calcium, and those were coming in a greater percentage from the food pantry than compared with other sources like grocery stores.”
Dr. Eicher-Miller will be discussing what she has found in her research on food insecurity. We will also be talking about federal programs, food pantries, and community gardens and how important they are to communities that are in need.
Dr. Eicher-Miller is an Associate Professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University. Her research focuses on food insecurity which affects 11% of U.S. households and creates uncertainty in having enough nutritious and safe food. Her work has found poor dietary and health outcomes linked to food insecurity among diverse populations and created interventions to improve food security.
Shireen: Podcasting from Dallas, Texas, I am Shireen and this is the Yumlish podcast. Yumlish Is working to empower you to take charge of your health through diet and exercise and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like type two diabetes and heart disease. We hope to share a unique perspective and a culturally relevant approach to managing these chronic conditions with you each week.
In this episode, Dr. Heather Eicher-Miller will be discussing which she has founded her research on food insecurity. We will also be talking about federal programs, food pantries, and community gardens, and how important they are to communities that in need.
Dr. Eicher-Miller is an Associate Professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University. Her research focuses on food insecurity, which affects 11% of us households and creates uncertainty in having enough nutritious and safe food. Her work has found poor dietary and health outcomes linked to food insecurity among diverse populations and created interventions to improve food security.
Welcome Dr. Eicher-Miller.
Eicher-Miller: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Shireen: A pleasure. So, Dr. Eicher-Miller, will you please tell us a little bit more about your background and in particular, this interest on food insecurity?
Eicher-Miller: Yes. So I am originally from Indiana and I always loved science. When I went to college, I studied biology and psychology.
And then following that, I moved to Philadelphia and worked with low income families as a kinship care social worker. So that was a really impactful experience for me. And following that, I lived in the Philippines for about two years and I was working with homeless youth and kind of in the community development area.
But with both of, you know, with those experiences and then having grown up in rural Indiana where, you know, food production is really the focus and then in urban areas in the us like Philadelphia and in the Philippines, in an extreme sense. People, you know, can struggle to get enough food. So you know, seeing these different places was something that really sparked my interest in food insecurity.
And so when I came back to the us, after being in the Philippines, I decided to pursue a master's to try to understand food insecurity more. And then also got a PhD after that. Both of those were at Purdue University and I decided to stay here as well. And continue as a, a professor. And I, the whole time I've just, you know, really stayed in this area of food insecurity.
And learning more about diet and health for people that live in that situation of food insecurity.
Shireen: So walk us through the basics. What are some of the reasons why people experience food insecurity?
Eicher-Miller: So in the United States, food insecurity is something that households might go in and out of. It's a situation and they, in, within households, they have to manage this. So it's kind of different than, you know, in some other countries in the world where it might be more chronic food insecurity, just, you know, staying in that situation for a very long time. But in the U.S., it kind of does tend to be something that fluctuates and In order to manage that, households have to kind of decide, you know, who's going to maybe get food or get certain foods before other people do.
And so whenever anyone in the household in the us is changing their diet because of not having enough money for food, it's called low food security. Where as when someone in the household is actually not eating enough, it's called very low food security. So we do have these different levels or ranges.
And then, you know, usually what we've also seen is it is the adult that's in charge of kind of managing the food, which is often the female head of the household. That is the one that fills the impacts of food insecurity first because she's usually kind of protecting children and especially younger children from having to change their diet or eat less.
And so, you know, people in the household can experience food insecurity differently. But, but pretty much everyone will often have diets that are lower
quality than they would otherwise be in a food secure situation. Some of those links that we've seen with diet are having lower intakes of fruits and vegetables, dairy, and protein and whole grains, kind of all the main groups that are recommended in the dietary guidelines for Americans. And then we also see key nutrients that aren't consumed in enough quantities. So those would be like calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber other things as well, like vitamin a, B6, magnesium and zinc. And so and then we also see greater intake of things that most Americans should limit, like sodium, saturated fats and added sugars. So and, and then overall, when, you know, you're not getting these nutrients, it can lead to poor health outcomes.
So those are also some links we see with food insecure households is just having higher rates of chronic disease for adults. And more difficulty managing those situations.
Shireen: You talked about chronic disease. So let's dive a little bit more into that research that you've completed. Can you tell us some of the health problems associated with food insecurities that you found through your research and what that meant?
Eicher-Miller: Sure. So some of the links with food insecurity among adults To have higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease of related conditions with cardiovascular disease, like heart disease, stroke, heart attacks, things like that. And then diabetes, obesity, which is a background condition for many other chronic outcomes, cancer and other things, of course that are
a little less prevalent, but we, for among children, we even see more trips to the emergency room because of acute conditions, more asthma. And also there's a lot of mental health outcomes, poor mental health outcomes that are linked with food insecurity.
Shireen: Let's now talk about some of the groups that are most impacted.
So what, what are some of those vulnerable populations and groups when it comes to food insecurity?
Eicher-Miller: Yeah. So this is a great question. And, and when we think about the 11% of households in the us that have food insecurity we found that that's not evenly distributed. So there certainly are characteristics that.
Identify groups as, you know, having a greater susceptibility. And some of those are of course having less income. So that's the, you know, the, the most obvious maybe and the strongest link with food insecurity, but then we also see some other factors like having children in the household. There's a greater percentage of households with children that have food insecurity in the us.
And so. It's, it's really heavily affecting kids. Also by sex, we see households that are headed by women, having a greater prevalence of food insecurity and then finally by race ethnicity. So African American and Hispanic households are much more prevelantly affected. So, you know, I, I think it kind of gets to the things that we're more realizing as a society now that need our attention, like race, ethnicity, and gender.
And I also, you know, what we've also seen too, is that during the pandemic, these characteristics, kids in the household, female head of household and African American and Hispanic households had a more severe reaction to food insecurity, just greater prevalence among those households compared with anyone, all other households.
So yeah, the, the pandemic kind of heightened that for us. But we, we should focus our efforts on those groups.
Shireen: Absolutely. And let's talk about some of the governmental programs that are in place today. So, we've heard of a few of them, can you highlight for us some of the top sort of programs that help communities who are struggling with this?
And then can you also shed some light on the efficacy of these programs? Do they even work?
Eicher-Miller: Yes. Yeah. Great. So we do have several federal programs that are very helpful and very important to, you know, keeping food insecurity where it is and not making it get worse, but also, you know, where we can look to see if they're actually working and could they do more?
So some of those programs are the, the supplemental nutrition assistance program or snap, which is also known as the food stamp program. This is a really key program for helping giving households. Some extra benefit to purchase foods and it's based on the household income. So that program is very important and there were some policies that kind of expanded snap during the pandemic that also really helped.
We don't know all the details of that yet, but emerging research is showing that that really helped buffer food insecurity during the pandemic. A lesser, some lesser known program that is linked with snap is called snap education or snap ed. And this program provides households that qualify for snap nutrition education, and also targets communities or areas where there is a low income population.
With more of environmental nutrition education or, or marketing social marketing to, to improve people's knowledge of nutrition. And this program is one that we've, in my lab have studied and we, we're trying to see if it's actually improving food security and also how well it's helping people change their diet.
So what we found is that it was making a big difference in food security, actually 25% improvement for households that received the SnapEd compared with households that did not, that was our control group. And we feel that this is really amazing considering that this program does not give a financial benefit.
All it gives is just the education and education is something that can last beyond when you're taking the lessons, it's something you can use your whole life. So and, and our study was completed over one year. So it showed, you know, a longitudinal benefit from snap ed. So nutrition education can be one piece of the of a helpful solution, but snap is certainly,
one of the most key pieces to that, but then there are some other programs too, that target certain groups maybe, you know, WIC is targeting those who are pregnant breastfeeding or young children. And then we have some programs on the older the other end of the lifespan as well for older Americans.
Shireen: I, I second you know, that what you mentioned about nutrition education, certainly with the work that we do at Yumlish, it's, it's very important to sort of focus on that, on that piece as well. How important are food pantries that are staple in every community? And what health benefits do they end up providing to people?
Eicher-Miller: So food pantries are you know, they're a non-federal source of support for a lot of people that struggle with food insecurity. And they're generally just supported by contributions from the community. Although they can get some federal support as well, but they are certainly non-governmental in the way that they operate and they are.
Serving as a very critical resource for many families to provide high quality food. That's also free. And one of the other great things about food pantries, as opposed to something like snap is that they don't require any, you know, they require very limited information to receive those free foods. Like basically you can just show up. And you don't, you know, they'll offer you food.
So they're definitely useful for our families in an emergency situation where, you know, something happened and they just don't have the budget for food that week. But what we are also finding, and, and also during the pandemic is that families were really relying on this, not just as an emergency, but kind of as a ongoing source of food to add to their household. And when you think of that kind of use it, it's really important then of what they're, what they're able to get from the food pantry. And is that food healthy when you're relying on it in more of a long term way? So it's important that pantries can have the variety and the different kinds of.
That would support a healthy diet. But, and in some of our research, we've actually been able to quantify that and see how well the mix of foods at food pantries compares to what's recommended in the dietary guidelines. And we have found that it's actually the diet, the quality of that is pretty high.
Pretty much it's it's about the same or higher than the normal dietary quality that most Americans are having in their diets. And when we also, you know, looked, especially at individuals who are using food pantries, we found the nutrients that they were getting from the food pantry was actually contributing more of, a lot of really helpful things like fiber, fruit, grains, oils, vitamin D, K, and calcium, and those were coming in a greater percentage from the food pantry than compared with other sources like grocery stores. We also saw that for households using the food pantry, using it more frequently was linked with a higher dietary quality.
So it kind of gets to you know, think about how, how could we reduce the stigma, sometimes attached to using a food pantry.
Shireen: You know, when we talk about food insecurity, we think about government programs. We think about food pantries and we think about food pantries that well, if, if nothing else exists, can we then turn to the community?
So really besides food pantries, what else has your research shown as being a viable option for communities? Big one that comes to mind or community food gardens and neighborhoods. Can you speak to some of that?
Eicher-Miller: Yeah, those are some things that communities have started to engage more in is supporting some of those you know, gardening efforts and there's been a lot of interest in those kinds of things.
And, other kinds of local food projects. And it also makes me think of the actually, you know, interest in farmer's markets and having the government has also put some effort towards farmer's markets to make them accepting of snap benefits. And so that's a way to try to also support that,
that link for food insecure families to more local foods. However, I, you know, I do think there's kind of been some barriers there as well that still need to be worked out to just make sure that those audiences that use snap are aware of farmer's markets and feel, you know, encouraged to use them and take advantage of the, the way that snap benefits can be used there as well.
Shireen: Interesting. Thank you for sharing that. Dr. Eicher-Miller, where do you see things going next in your research, sort of what's on the horizon for you and what are you exploring further?
Eicher-Miller: So we're one thing we're working on is pursuing more interventions in food pantries. To help connect people that use the food pantry to other resources.
We feel like the, the food pantry is kind of already made place where Households that are food insecure and have very low food security they're already going there. Cuz sometimes it can be hard to connect with that group. And so it's, it's also community based and so they can meet people and build, you know, connections in their communities and hopefully we could encourage them to be linking with other resources that could support them.
One of the studies we've worked on with this model has been focused on rural veterans and trying to link them with a greater benefit to the veterans affairs department and to some of the benefits that they could get that they're not getting. That group, sometimes very challenging to link with resources because they feel very self-sufficient and it can be hard to overcome some of those barriers.
But yeah, we're, we're working in that area. And then also continuing to investigate this snap ed program further and especially find out about. How that program might not just be helping food insecurity in the whole household, but also how the, the foods that are purchased may be used within the household and among the children and the adults in the household.
And trying to learn more about food insecurity and diet, dietary intake in the context of the family. Not just for the adult of the family, but for the entire family.
Shireen: Interesting. And and that's, and that's so true because it's not only an individual in their chronic condition and you know, their health outcomes, but you have to look at it more holistically.
So it's not, multi-generational either. So with that, Dr. Eicher-Miller, we are toward the end of the episode. How can listeners connect with you and just learn more about your work?
Eicher-Miller: Well, they can find my bio on my Purdue website. And also if you're really interested in our research, I would just encourage you to go to the PubMed directory of studies.
And you can just put in my last name and find our work there. So a lot of those studies are just posted within PubMed that you could download and look at. And of course all the abstracts are there as well. But yeah, also just emailing me, reaching out. I'd love to connect with you.
Shireen: And we'll put all this information up in the show notes for the episode so that folks can reach out and connect.
Alright. So with that, thank you again, Dr. Eicher-Miller for your time, for the folks that are listening here head over to our social media next, we've got a question for you waiting, which is to say, are there any food gardens in your community? If you're able to send us a picture even better, but if there are any food gardens, please tag them, head over to our Facebook, our Instagram and tag your community food garden on this podcast episode's post below.
So we'll continue the conversation there on Facebook and Instagram. Again, Dr. Eicher-Miller. Thank you so much for your time.
Eicher-Miller: Thank you. It's been fun.
Shireen: Thank you for listening to the Yumlish Podcast. Make sure to follow us on social media @Yumlish_ on Instagram and Twitter and @Yumlish on Facebook and LinkedIn. For tips about managing your diabetes and other chronic conditions and to chat and connect with us about your journey and perspectives. You can also visit our website Yumlish.com for more recipes advice and to get involved with all of the exciting opportunities Yumlish has to offer. If you like this week's show, make sure to subscribe so you can hear more from us every time we post. Thank you again, and we'll see you next time. Remember your health always comes first. Stay well.
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