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How food insecurity, safety and discrimination are impacting young adults

According to researchers, young adults experiencing food insecurity have been more likely to face discrimination and feel unsafe in their neighborhoods.
Image by Motasem Kadadah

During the COVID-19 pandemic, young adults experiencing food insecurity have been more likely to face discrimination and feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, according to a report published by University of Minnesota researchers.

The study, published in October, analyzed online surveys about food behaviors, neighborhood safety and discrimination from 218 young adults during the stay-at-home order in Minnesota.

Nicole Larson, the study lead and senior research associate in the School of Public Health, said she hoped to gain a better idea of what resources could assist young people to ensure they have access to adequate food and healthy living during the pandemic.

“The pandemic in combination with already present structural determinants of health further limited access to healthy foods for emerging adults from racial or ethnic marginalized backgrounds,” Jaime Slaughter-Acey, co-author of the study, said in an email.

Larson and the five other researchers on the project found that respondents who were food insecure were less likely to have fruits or vegetables at home compared to those who were food secure. They were also more likely to have frequent fast-food restaurant meals.

Larson said the study was important to bring to food pantries during the pandemic.

“[The study] gives [food pantries] a sense of what are the biggest challenges for emerging adults during this time and what emerging adults were looking for when they went to a food pantry,” Larson said.

Rebecca Leighton, health promotion specialist at Boynton Health, founded the Nutritious U Food Pantry as a graduate student in 2017 to address college student food insecurity.

According to Leighton, 85% students who use the pantry feel that they are getting enough to eat. Additionally, 97% of students say that they feel reduced stress after visiting the food pantry — but students face many more challenges during the pandemic, Leighton said.

Nutritious U is collaborating with another food bank, Second Harvest Heartland, on an initiative called Minnesota Central Kitchen, Leighton said. The program offers free chef-prepared meals for college students and others experiencing food insecurity.

The Minnesota Central Kitchen initiative began in March, but in recent weeks it has partnered with Nutritious U, Swipe Out Hunger and Campus Club to bring meals to University students.

Campus Club prepares the meals, and Nutritious U and Swipe Out Hunger ensure they are distributed to students in need.

“[Minnesota Central Kitchen] was a response to a growing-by-the-minute number of college students that were existing food insecure and or newly food insecure,” said Emily Paul, executive director of Minnesota Central Kitchen.

Paul said Second Harvest Heartland had not prepared meals before. But with their resources, they have been able to make free food during the pandemic for people experiencing food insecurity.

“Minnesota Central Kitchen is currently moving 300 meals per week to the UMN campus food shelf for distribution for undergraduate and graduate students,” Paul said.

According to Paul, the kitchen has spent almost $100,000 buying ingredients from farmers who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color.

“We do know that food insecurity does disproportionately affect certain marginalized populations. Our students of color, BIPOC students and international students definitely have higher rates of food insecurity than their white counterparts,” Leighton said.

According to Larson, much more work needs to be done.

“We need to pay more attention to research in this area of interpersonal and structural racism that impacts food insecure people,” she said.

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