Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Food Security and Low-Income Families: Research to Inform Policy and Programs

Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Food Security and Low-Income Families: Research to Inform Policy and Programs

Article excerpt


The purpose of this study was to understand how low-income families meet their food and nutrition needs. The low-income families studied used five primary strategies: (1) relying on others; (2) adjusting resources; (3) reducing food consumption; (4) making trade-offs; and (5) acquiring nutrition and shopping knowledge and skills. To help families meet their food and nutrition needs, it is essential for (1) families to have a greater voice and involvement in food and nutrition policy and program decisions and (2) service providers to deliver family-centered services that respond to individual family needs. By accomplishing modest goals through family-centered nutrition education, people may become empowered, leading them to achieve greater personal responsibility and self-sufficiency.


Food is a basic need and human right. Unfortunately, the majority of poor families have difficulty meeting this basic need. Despite America's growing economy, 32 million people were poor in the United States in 1999 (Dalaker and Proctor, 2000) and 31 million people (including four million children) were food insecure (Andrews et al., 2000). These individuals had difficulty accessing nutritionally adequate, safe food in socially acceptable ways (Anderson, 1990). Single mothers and their children are more likely to be poor and food insecure than other populations. Research shows that inadequately nourished children are not only at risk for developmental delays (Kleinman et al., 1998; Murphy et al., 1998), but present risks to society because poor nutrition can lead to increased health care costs and loss of productivity. Reducing the food budget without adequate consideration of the impact on nutrition may result in increased short- and long-term medical costs for families (Dinkins, 1997; Morton and Guthrie, 1997). Thus, poverty positions families to have less access to resources leading to greater likelihood of food insecurity and poorer health outcomes than for people who are not poor (USDHHS, 1998).

Women who are undernourished during pregnancy are at risk of giving birth to babies who are low-birth weight (LBW). LBW babies are at risk for suffering developmental delays (Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, 1998) and in severe cases, mortality.

The social and financial costs of supporting children with developmental delays (Litchfield et al., 1995) far outweigh the costs of providing adequate nutrition and health care to poor women and children.

This article focuses on understanding how low-income families meet their food and nutrition needs. Understanding human behavior is essential to helping families become food secure and obtain nutritionally sound diets. Understanding how families in poverty meet food needs is important to understanding how to support families most effectively.


To better understand families' abilities to meet food needs, we conducted focus groups, indepth interviews, and case studies in seven Iowa counties in 1999 to gather data from 49 lowincome mothers of young children. The case study interviews included an observation component that researchers used to observe families grocery shopping, planning, preparing, and consuming meals. A participatory research component was included that allowed the women to research their own situations by keeping track of their monthly income, expenditures, and assistance sought and recording their perceptions of the situations and the stressors experienced. The use of multiple methods, along with involving a team of researchers in the study, served as a form of triangulation to ensure credibility of data (Brotherson and Goldstein, 1992; Creswell, 1994; Lincoln and Guba, 1985).

Purposive sampling was used to select participants who could communicate both depth and breadth of experience (Morgan, 1988). The researchers sought to include participants who represented diversity on selected characteristics, yet had sufficient homogeneity on issues or context upon which participants could share and build discussion. …

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