Food insecurity concerns heighten for many as COVID-19 again surges

By Sally Crocker

Food Insecurity Donations Web

New HSC faculty member Charlotte Noble, PhD, MPH, and her family moved from Florida to Fort Worth in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when little was yet known about the reach of the virus, its outcomes and how long it would last.

Months later, as states like Texas and others are seeing a serious resurgence of the virus, leading to heightened concerns for the public’s safety, many families and communities struggle with issues impacting health and basic daily living.

Dr. Noble, Assistant Professor for the HSC School of Public Health, has spent the last 14 years focusing her teaching, research interests and service on the impact of food insecurity and nutrition on the day-to-day experiences of living with infectious and chronic disease.

When she and her family arrived in Fort Worth in mid-March, they found businesses closing and grocery store shelves mostly bare. Schools like HSC were extending spring break and in discussions to move classes online.

Under normal circumstances, a two-day caravan across several states in three cars, with furniture and moving pods sent ahead, would be pretty stressful. But in the middle of a pandemic, it was quite intensified for the family.

“There was a lot of panic at that time – things were happening fast,” Dr. Noble said. “Gas stations along the way were still open, but there were questions about safe food options, using public restrooms and the possibility that state borders might close.”

When the family arrived, there was no bread or milk to be found, and meat cases were wiped out. Essential canned goods were sparse. People were already starting to avoid others in the grocery aisles, trying not to get too close.

“That first shopping trip was kind of scary, not at all like we had expected for arrival at our new home. Luckily, we were able to find some rice, beans, tortillas and a few other healthy options to get us by for a while,” Dr. Noble said.

Many people found themselves in this unfortunate position in March, scrambling for food and supplies like the Nobles and worried about what would come next.

With the recent summer surges of COVID-19 in a growing number of states, community food banks and other providers are working overtime to keep up with demand. Loss of jobs and the U.S. economic downturn have led many families to seek assistance.

From worker infections at processing plants, through delivery services and all along supply chains, the problems are compounded as many Americans find less food and fewer options while continuing to brace for the unknown duration of the virus.

College and graduate students, too, are among the growing number of people seeking resources, as university food pantries around the country, like HSC’s and so many others, continue collecting and distributing food donations and personal care products at record numbers.

Under the shadow of the pandemic, some of country’s biggest public health problems are revealing weak spots for low-income and marginalized populations that suffer from these types of stresses on an everyday basis. The new COVID-19 reality that communities are facing is showing just how vulnerable our world is.

“Hunger and food insecurity have been critical issues for a long time, and they have now become COVID-19 concerns as well,” Dr. Noble said.

Dr. Noble studied anthropology as an undergraduate. During her graduate program, working on a dual MPH-Global Health Concentration and MA in Applied Anthropology, followed by her PhD, she began examining the health of vulnerable populations through a social determinants of health lens.

Her research on the relationship between food and housing security, mental health and HIV in the U.S. and abroad has looked at communities in Florida and taken her to places like Costa Rica, Haiti and the country of Lesotho in southern Africa.

“Health disparities and social, political and economic circumstances are very much linked to food insecurity,” Dr. Noble said. “Physical, social and economic barriers all have an impact on individual health behaviors and how people are able to live.”

“There is a certain degree of knowledge that most people have, knowing what they need and what they need to do to stay healthy, but they may not always have access to those things because of the surrounding environment and conditions.”

COVID-19 is the perfect example that illustrates this point.

“There are so many issues that people may be going through right now – loss of jobs, risk of eviction, lack of transportation, being able to find healthy food close to where they live, having the personal protective equipment to go out for what they need and having a safe way to get there. For communities already suffering before the pandemic, these problems are intensified,” Dr. Noble said.

“Perhaps now more than ever before, these common threads are bringing people together across communities, as we all try to successfully navigate as best we can and help each other get through.”

“It’s an important time for strategizing on where things go from here, both through the remainder of the pandemic and beyond,” Dr. Noble said, “to focus on the bigger, longer-term issues that need all of our attention.”

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