The Psychological Distress of Food Insecurity: A Qualitative Study of the Emotional Experiences of Parents and Their Coping Strategies



      Food insecurity increases the risks of diet-related chronic disease and mental health outcomes in low-income adults; however, the pathways underlying these associations have not been clearly identified. Chronic, psychological distress may represent an important pathway between food insecurity and health.


      To identify types of psychological distress, experiential descriptions, and the array of emotional responses and coping strategies specific to food insecurity among parents with children


      A phenomenological qualitative study using one-on-one, in-depth interviews.

      Participants and setting

      Forty-eight adults (parents) were recruited from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016-17. Eligibility criteria included any experience of household food insecurity over the past 12 months, having a child aged 7 to 14 years, and both parent and child with the ability to speak English fluently.

      Statistical analyses

      Data were analyzed using the constant comparative method to reveal emergent themes across multiple interviews.


      Parents discussed six themes related to the psychological distress of food insecurity: stress from the logistical and financial balancing act of feeding one’s family, frustration and lack of choice associated with the high costs of healthy foods, stigma of using community resources, shame of not being able to provide for one’s family, sadness about their cyclical and chronic food situation, and guilt over their inability to adequately provide for their children. Coping responses included negative responses, such as sleeping and drinking to avoid thinking about food insecurity, and positive responses of relying on their friends and family for support, staying hopeful, and spending time with their children.


      The commonality of emotional responses stemming from the experience of food insecurity can increase the risk for clinical anxiety and depression. Future development of interventions and policies to alleviate food insecurity must include social support and adequate safety systems.


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      C. Leung is J. Searle Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor; at the time of the study, she was a postdoctoral scholar, Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco.


      B. A. Laraia is a professor of community health sciences, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, CA.


      C. Fiener is a study coordinator and research assistant, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health, Ann Arbor.


      K. Solis is an undergraduate student and research assistant, Research Scholars Program, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


      A. Stewart is a professor of nursing, Institute for Health & Aging , University of California, San Francisco.


      N. Adler is a professor of psychiatry, and director, Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco.


      E. Epel is a professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco.