What if the best way to alleviate food insecurity is to help people build their credit scores?

A comprehensive new data project explores the intersection between hunger and other causes of economic distress.

It makes intuitive sense that a low-income family, paying expensive rent, might experience food insecurity. Research shows that when people run low on money, groceries are often one of the first bills to trim. “Rent eats first. Households are forced to pay their rent because they need a place to stay,” says Andrew Aurand, vice president of research for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But policymakers tend to focus on solutions that address only the grocery bill, not the whole equation. Food banks provide one-time emergency aid. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) disburses money that can be spent only on groceries. It’s usually not enough. What if food and nutrition advocates also focused on blunting the financial impact of other risk factors, like high rent and poor credit? 

Disrupting food insecurity mapUrban Institute

The dashboard provides counties with data about their food insecurity levels and related risk factors

That’s the thinking behind a large new data project funded by the Walmart Foundation and led by the Urban Institute, a think tank that focuses on social policy. It maps food insecurity county-by-county alongside other factors that contribute to hunger, including high housing costs and physical health challenges. “This is sort of to … help [communities] see these intersections really plainly, side-by-side, and think about putting a new mix of people in a room or think about leveraging new kinds of policies and programs as a way of tackling food insecurity,” says Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at The Urban Institute and lead researcher on the Food Insecurity Dashboard.

Subsidizing car payments or investing in better public transportation might go a long way to free up grocery money.

The research cross-references several datasets to identify “peer groups” who share similar economic and health-related stresses. Parts of Arizona, for instance, have a lot in common with Miami: Housing costs are high, food insecurity is high, and residents tend to have slightly above-average health. The idea is that these areas might share similar strategies to disrupt food insecurity: Affordable housing would make a big difference here, as would corner stores with healthy options. Those same policies might do very little in a rural area with low population density and low housing costs. 

Food insecurity can be both a cause and an effect of some of the factors outlined in the data. Richard Sheward, an advisory board member on the study who works for Children’s HealthWatch, a network of researchers that focuses on child nutrition, calls it a “constellation of hardships.” Poor credit can lead to high monthly interest payments, which can lead families to spend less at the grocery store, which can in turn lead to poor nutrition, which can in turn lead to diabetes and obesity in children. “You think of not having enough food, period, and that does occur in some families—families that have very low food security. A child is skipping meals, for instance,” Sheward says. “But in many cases, it’s about not having the right kind of food. And that is because fruits and vegetables—healthy foods—are more expensive than low-cost, calorie-dense foods that are high in sodium. You know, think of soda and potato chips.” 

“These things don’t happen by chance. They’re rooted in historic and social factors that deal with underlying structures.”

Waxman says one of the most interesting findings in the data was that people are spending a high proportion of their income on transportation. Subsidizing car payments or investing in better public transportation might go a long way to free up grocery money. “There are clearly such entangled issues there—we really need to start unpacking those if we expect things to get better,” she says.

It’s no surprise that low incomes are a factor in all the economic stressors outlined in the research. What’s more novel is the push for traditionally siloed advocacy groups to work together to address the root causes of food insecurity, housing instability, and children’s health. 

“These things don’t happen by chance. They’re rooted in historic and social factors that deal with underlying structures … Part of how we undo that is really having an understanding of not only what’s happening now, but what’s happened over time,” says Angela Odoms-Young, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago who also served on the project’s advisory board.

“Housing and food insecurity and all these things didn’t just come about by chance. They came out through policies and systems that we need to work and change to make more equitable.” 

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.