More than 2.5 million low-income Californians cannot afford adequate food for their families on a consistent basis, according to a new policy brief from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. For more than 775,000 adults, this problem is so severe that they frequently reduce the quality of their food intake or go hungry.
Compiled using data from three rounds of the biennial California Health Interview Survey, the policy brief shows that the percentage of low-income adults who suffer from food insecurity — those forced to choose between food and other necessities, such as rent or prescription medicine — actually decreased from 33.9 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2005 but was still higher than the 29.1 percent recorded in 2001. This improvement is attributed to the state's recent economic expansion and an emerging change in the demography of California's low-income population.
The authors also noted that while the state's overall rate of food insecurity fell in 2005, this improvement left out many groups that were already among the most vulnerable, such as unemployed residents, undocumented immigrants and low-income families with children. The percentage of low-income Californians experiencing very low food security (i.e., those missing meals) did not change significantly between 2003 and 2005.
"Although there has been some improvement, we're still seeing millions of our fellow Californians struggling to fill this basic human need, and that impacts all of us," said lead author Gail Harrison, professor of community health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health and a senior research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "Among the consequences of widespread food insecurity are a diminished work force, higher health costs and poor performance in school."
The complete brief is available on the center's Web site at www.healthpolicy.ucla.edu.
Rates of food insecurity vary among the state's ethnic groups, and the variation has remained constant since 2001. Among low-income Californians, African Americans had the highest rate of household food insecurity at 37.5 percent, followed by Latinos at 32.6 percent. Whites and Asians had lower rates — 28.6 and 24.1 percent, respectively.
Food insecurity also varies widely by county. The highest food insecurity rates are found in Kings, Napa, Merced, Fresno, Santa Barbara, Alameda and Tulare counties.
Other findings in the brief include:
· Households with the lowest incomes are at the highest risk for food insecurity. Among households with incomes below the federal poverty level, 36.2 percent were food insecure, compared with 25.6 percent for households with incomes between 100 and 199 percent of the federal poverty level.
· Food insecurity is more likely to be reported among adults in less than good health. In 2005, 40.1 percent of low-income adults who reported fair or poor health status lived in food-insecure households, compared with 24.8 percent among those reporting good health.
· Adults living in low-income households with food insecurity are also more likely to struggle with being overweight or obese. In 2005, 64 percent of adults in food-insecure households were overweight or obese, compared with 58 percent of those in food-secure households.
"The small improvement that we've seen since 2003 tells us that policy solutions can work and that hunger and food insecurity need not be constants in the lives of working Californians," said Matthew Sharp, co-author of the brief and Southern California regional advocate for California Food Policy Advocates, which provided funding for the study. "Policymakers at the state and local level must recognize that marginal improvement isn't enough when it comes to unnecessary suffering on this scale. More changes are needed."
Since it was first conducted in 2001, the California Health Interview Survey has been an essential tool for policymakers, researchers and health advocates at every level needing a detailed snapshot of the complex health needs of California's diverse population. The survey is a collaborative project of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the California Department of Health Services and the Public Health Institute.
The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research was established in 1994 and is one of the nation's leading health policy research centers. It is also the premier source of key health policy information for California. Directed by E. Richard Brown, the center is based at the UCLA School of Public Health and is also affiliated with the UCLA School of Public Affairs.