Food Insecurity And Homelessness

Many people associate homelessness with hunger. Often, those experiencing homelessness also experience hunger, but the issue also extends beyond the unhoused population: according to Move For Hunger, “more than 42 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable food. To put these numbers into perspective, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that about 580,000 Americans experienced homelessness on a single night in 2020. Food insecurity often precedes homelessness, as individuals are forced to choose between paying for housing or groceries, meaning that millions of Americans may be at risk of becoming homeless. 

Food Deserts

Those who experience food insecurity often live in what is called a ‘food desert.’ According to Medical News Today, “food deserts are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthful foods. This may be due to having a limited income or living far away from sources of healthful and affordable food.” 

In a study conducted by The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it was found that “areas with higher poverty rates are more likely to be a food desert regardless of rural or urban designation.” The study also found that about 23.5 million Americans live in low-income neighborhoods that are more than 1 mile away from a large grocery store or supermarket. Of that population, about 11.5 million have a low income. Between 2000 and 2006, the USDA identified about 6,500 food deserts across the nation. A 2012 USDA report also suggested that low income minority ethnic groups experienced greater food insecurity than their white counterparts. 


In California, nearly 4.5 million individuals are food insecure, and about 130,000 people are experiencing homelessness. This ratio highlights the great number of individuals that are at risk of becoming homelessness. Food is required to live, so if someone is faced with the choice of having to pay for their groceries or rent, food will likely be the priority. A situation like this could easily force someone into homelessness.

Factors Contributing To Food Insecurity 

Poverty is a significant factor that results in food insecurity. While the poverty guideline varies by state, those experiencing poverty typically can afford very little and typically live paycheck-to-paycheck. These individuals are at a high risk of becoming homelessness, as it can be very difficult to pay for necessities like rent, groceries, electricity, water, and clothing. 

In recent years, income inequality has also played a major role in food insecurity. Move For Hunger says, “an estimated 40 percent of the total U.S. population (140 million people) are either poor or low-income. By almost any measure, income inequality has increased exponentially over the past 30+ years. Since 1980, most of the growth in wages has been concentrated among top earners, while wages for the average worker have stagnated.” 

A lack of affordable housing has forced many families into food insecurity. As housing prices soar and median household income decreases across the nation, millions of Americans must choose between adequate housing and nutritious food. 

Effects On Those Experiencing Homelessness

Often, those that experience food insecurity also lack access to adequate transportation. Individuals experiencing homelessness may not be able to travel to a grocery store for various reasons: they may not be able to afford a car, gas, public transportation, or a bicycle. Health problems could inhibit someone from carrying groceries or walking to the grocery store. 

Even if an individual experiencing homelessness did have access to an adequate grocery store and transportation, that person simply may not be able to afford nutritious groceries. Additionally, these individuals likely do not have the space to prepare healthy meals.

The lack of nutritious food can lead to health problems. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans says that a healthy diet should include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat free or low-fat dairy, protein-rich foods, and healthful oils. Maintaining a diet with such variety is difficult for individuals that cannot afford or do not have access to all these foods. For those enduring homelessness, this diet is most likely impossible to keep up with. If an individual does not have access to nutritious food, they are at risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and much more. 

Ways to Help

Advocating is a free and easy way that you can help individuals experiencing food insecurity. Raise awareness about the issue, write to your local government, and vote for candidates that will work to solve this issue.

You can also contribute to a local food drive. Food drives provide free or extremely affordable food to those in need of it. If you do not have a local food drive organization, consider starting your own. 

Another way to help is to donate to hunger relief programs. Make sure you thoroughly research your chosen organization before donating to ensure that your money will go directly towards helping food insecurity. 

Experiencing Food Insecurity Or Know Someone Who Is?

Call the Hunger Hotline from the USDA for information on meal sites, food banks and other services near you. Call 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (1-877-842-6273) for Spanish. Hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday.

Hunger hotline text option. Text 97779 with a question that contains a keyword such as “food” or “meals”. The automated response will include resources located near an address and/or zip code. can help you find free food assistance programs for children and families in your area. 


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