Is Food Insecurity an Environmental Justice Issue?

At least 15% of University of North Carolina Wilmington students are struggling to get adequate food. We have students at UNCW dealing with food insecurity and housing insecurity who live out of their cars, Resident Assistants (RAs) who rely on school meal plans, don’t have access to healthy options, and are at the whim of school restaurant hours. We have students who are caught between parents going through a messy divorce and having to pay tuition themselves while somehow managing to afford groceries.

But there is another prevalent pattern that I’ve observed within our community that is little noticed and lying in plain sight. One of the largest groups that relies on the food pantry is UNCW Hispanic students, as well as members of the greater Wilmington, NC area with its strong, beautiful Latin American community that enhances eastern North Carolina with its Spanish language and rich culture.

When I first moved from Philadelphia to North Carolina I did not know anyone. I was 500 miles from home and friends. I quickly discovered there was not much of an Italian community (my own background) in Wilmington. Nevertheless, I was willing to try something new and the Hispanic community soon became like a second family to me, first when I learned how to salsa dance and began to make friends. I still like to say Italians and Hispanics are “come baciare cugini,” or like kissing cousins with cultural similarities. We are more alike than different. One dear friend took me into her home freshman year during a hurricane where I learned how to cook tortillas with her charming abuela, or grandmother, to guide me. And so, my heart ached when I learned about the prevalence of food and economic insecurity within my new community and friends. And, then, deeper study revealed that my interest in food, security and health was an important environmental justice issue.

Dr. Jill Waity, a sociology professor at UNCW, is currently conducting the latest campus food insecurity survey and helped coordinate the original survey in 2018. Her data helped stimulate and back up the initiative for the Hawks Harvest student food pantry in the first place. She is also one of thirteen authors who co-wrote a study published in April 2019, Expenditure, Coping, and Academic Behaviors among Food-Insecure College Students at 10 Higher Education Institutes in the Appalachian and Southeastern Regions. For the study, 14,293 students were surveyed from ten public universities. Dr. Waity and colleagues discovered that the prevalence of food insecurity is always higher at the campuses studied than the national average. Food insecurity ranges from 23-52% among the universities they looked at, with an average of 30.5%. Food insecure students are more likely to exhibit poorer academic performance. The study found sophomore and juniors specifically showed heightened risks of food insecurity. In addition, ethnic minority students who received financial aid and cooked infrequently exhibited increased risks (Waity, et al., 2019).

The 2018 UNCW campus study also found that students experiencing food insecurity seem to be more likely to engage in behaviors like buying cheap, processed foods, and overeating when food is available. Improved access to nutritious and healthier food options could potentially decrease the risks of students becoming overweight and obese in college. The most common solution students surveyed identified for improving their food situation was increased education and skill development. The added stress of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, along with classes and workloads, tends to result in students craving higher calorie foods. When compared to food secure college students, food insecure students are 24% more likely to eat less healthy meals in order to eat larger quantities of food and stay fuller longer; 17% were more likely to eat more than normal when food was available. Yet, despite these eye-opening behaviors, only 8% of food insecure students reported using a food bank or pantry. More than simply having access to nutritious foods by creating a food pantry and on-campus gardens is needed. Students need education on how to cook nutritious, inexpensive meals and how to shop for food on a budget (Huelskamp, Waity, Russell, 2018). That is why, starting this spring, Hawks Harvest is working with Chelsea Stanton, the campus dietician, on creating recipe cards for implementing healthy, low cost, and easily cooked meals for students. Our campus food pantry is also expanding by creating “how to cook” videos which students can access on the school’s website for easy cooking tutorials.

(Mantz, 2016)

The Demographics of Food Insecurity

What you eat affects all aspects of your life: energy levels, health condition, healthy behaviors, and more. But at the heart of comprehending food insecurity is the influence of disrupted eating patterns and nutritional inadequacy from a lack of access to healthy food items. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition of food insecurity is that “the quality, variety, or desirability of foods consumed is reduced.” Food insecurity is more than just having enough to eat— it is being able to have access to healthy eating options (Tester and Leung, 2018). Importantly, this lack of opportunity to get healthy food and its adverse effect on academic performance is closely related to race and ethnicity.

(Martorell, 2004)

According to The Association between Food Insecurity and Diet Quality Varies by Race/Ethnicity: An Analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2011-2014 Results, of the 4,393 American adults surveyed, 14.6% were marginally food insecure and 29.6% were food insecure within the past 12 months. It was also found that marginally insecure and food insecure adults were younger (20-23), of Black or Hispanic origin, and had lower educational attainment. This significant study reveals that college students of color are the most at risk when it comes to food insecurity. Specifically, Hispanic adults with marginal food insecurity were associated with higher sodium intake while Black adults who were marginally food insecure were associated with a lack of whole grains in their diet. It is not surprising, therefore, that these demographics correlate with the highest groups with chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart-related issues like high blood pressure (Tester and Leung, 2018).

(A Holistic Approach, 2014)

Food access and food insecurity for many communities are too often intertwined with equity and social justice issues. It is no wonder, given African American history, and the histories of other people of color in America, that minorities are at the center of environmental and food justice. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ office of minority health, African American adults are 80 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. In 2013, African Americans were twice as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to die from diabetes (Office of Minority Health, 2016). Despite these startling statistics, food insecurity and food access are often overlooked as environmental justice issues. Diabetes kills more Americans every year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. (American Diabetes Association, 2017).

I was introduced to these concepts when, in February 2017, I attended a Dean’s Lecture presented by Dr. Richard Mizelle, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston, Texas. He described in detail how in the early twentieth century, given racist medical theories, there were diseases that doctors misdiagnosed as strictly “white sicknesses.” Dr. Mizelle used the words “diabetes was a disease of whiteness.” In the mid-nineteenth century diabetes, asthma, and cancer were believed to be diseases and illnesses that only white people could get. Thus, diabetes among African Americans was neglected.

Not only did Dr. Mizelle discuss diabetes in the past, but also how it is affecting the lives of many Americans today. Type 2 diabetes involving insulin resistance is the most common form in North America. With Type 2, the pancreas makes the hormone insulin which helps cells turn glucose into energy, but the cells don’t use it as well as they should. To make up for this, the pancreas makes more insulin, but it can’t keep up with the high rate and then, instead, glucose begins to build in the bloodstream (Khatri, 2019). Type 2 is highly prevalent within the African American community that comes from living in what Dr. Mizelle termed a “food desert” — a community, usually of lower economic status, that struggles to have access to healthy food sources within a reasonably close radius. Examples include small-town communities that don’t have access to a local farmers market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, or urban ghettos where most food sources are nearby, cheap fast food chains. The resulting poor diets are a huge factor contributing to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (Ce’Dra Rogers, 2018).

Food Deserts

(Rogers, 2018)

Closer examination of food deserts and food access shows that in North Carolina, where I now live, 70% of residents favored the creation of a healthy corner store initiative. This is likely because 1.5 million North Carolinians live in 349 federally recognized food-desert areas.

According to NC Health News, it is common for the intersection of farmers markets and food deserts to occur because farmers markets are only open for limited times during the year. Although North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for the number of farmers markets, according to NC Department of Commerce statistics, many parts of the state have poor access to fresh fruits and vegetables during winter months. Additional barriers to using local farmers markets include a lack of transportation and an inability to use food stamps Some solutions being implemented include car pools from senior centers, as in Columbus county, providing land use protection for the produce market sites, and equipping farmers markets with electronic transfers that accept food stamps through discrete plastic cards resembling credit cards (Hoban, 2019).

The obstacles for those in rural food deserts are different in urban and suburban food deserts. Dr. Waity has described the concept of food aid accessibility and how it differs for rural residents in Indiana where she conducted her study, compared to urban dwellers. In rural areas like Indiana, food assistance and food aid agencies are often more difficult to reach and further away. Many food insecure people rely on food assistance programs such as community-based assistance like church soup kitchens, locally-run food pantries, or government assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. Decreased government funding for SNAP has also resulted in an increased reliance on community-based food assistance agencies making food accessibility and obtaining aid even more difficult.


With over 23.9 million Americans lacking access to a supermarket within a mile of their home and the problem of food deserts and food insecurity exacerbated by racial injustice, trying to find a solution is daunting.

Ultimately, each of us and our communities will need to and can come together to work for larger, systemic social and policy change. Since the lack of adequate and healthy food is ultimately an economic and environmental justice issue, addressing things like income inequality, racial discrimination, transportation and housing needs, political representation, and more will be needed. But, as Robert F. Kennedy once said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.” I have found that working to provide healthy food alternatives, to create community gardens, and to educate our campuses and communities about food insecurity is an excellent place to begin the journey toward justice.

— Julianna Tresca, Rachel Carson Council Fellow, UNCW. Julianna Tresca is a senior at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington majoring in Geology and Environmental Science with a focus in geospatial technologies. [email protected]





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