Food insecurity, depression, and 20-20 hindsight

In a university has large and diverse as some cities, health disparities emerge on campus communities just as they do off campus. I have had the privilege over the last few years to be a collaborator on a large study of diet, exercise,and friendship among undergraduates on the Arizona State University campus, lead by nutritionist and truly delightful colleague Meg Breuning.  Meg’s team has interviewed over 1,500 students at this point, and tracked in great detail when, how, and with who they eat. She has data to show that food insecurity — not having enough food or the right types of food — is a really common problem for our students. It’s so bad that a third of students of the students reported being food insecure just in the last month. This is really high compared to adults in general, about twice the national rate.  To respond to the problem, a food pantry just opened on campus.

Meg has also identified that food-insecure students on campus have higher levels of depression and anxiety than other students. I suspect at least part of the reason might be that food insecurity can be really shaming.  A review by anthropologists Lesley Jo Weaver and Craig Hadley suggests there are at least three reasons food insecurity might cause depression, and one of them is to do with recognizing you have fallen down in the social order.  Food insecurity can make people understand they are the “have nots”  – those who aren’t doing as well as others. Although Lesley Jo and Craig don’t call this feeling “stigma” specifically, it fits our working definition. And we know well that feelings of extreme shame make people depressed.  [By the way. Amber and I have written at length about some of this broader process of how insecurity creates depression here — a good treatment if you enjoy thick theory.] Frustratingly, though, we didn’t collect data on this point on campus as part of the current study. Ah, hindsight. But, honestly, I hadn’t predicted food insecurity would prove as much of a problem as Meg discovered it to be.

If I had, I would have been all over it. Certainly, a number of ethnographic studies have detailed how being food insecure can be very shaming for people, in part because it clearly identifies them as “poor.” A readable one is Mary Howard and Ann Millard’s classic study of hunger and shame in East Africa. This point also recalls a study we did in the early 2000s of 8-12 year old children in shantytowns in Mexico, many of whom lived in homes where food insecurity was common. We followed the kids about as they went about earning money and foraging for foods in their neighborhoods. Kids were hungry, and they did what they could to cope. They climbed up trees for fruit, they worked for food, and they shared what they had with each other. But, the one kid who would sort through trash cans at the bus station for half-eaten pizza was considered disgusting and revolting. The other kids didn’t want anything to do with him. It was amazing to me that even young, hungry kids had their very own and very clear code of what was unacceptable and shaming however hungry you were.

So, I see a great undergraduate honors thesis project in the making: interviewing students on campus around how they feel about using the food bank, capturing the possible stigma both those who do and those that don’t, and figuring out if shame could might be part of the reason that our students with food insecurity are more depressed.


Food pantry photo credit: Anya Magnuson/ASU Now.  Foraging kids photo credit: Sarah Lee