Healthy Food, Healthy Lives
January 20, 2022
The loss of life, prolonged economic hardship, and societal upheaval stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on New Yorkers.
Previous analyses from the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) documented increased rates of both food scarcity and poor mental health among New Yorkers during the ongoing pandemic. National research has found that experiencing food scarcity during the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with symptoms of poor mental health, even after adjusting for socioeconomic and demographic factors.,, This brief explores how experiencing food scarcity during the pandemic has affected the mental health of New Yorkers.
Note: Data in this fact sheet come from the COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey, an experimental data product designed by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with multiple federal agencies. See the methodology behind the analysis.
Mental Health Among Food-scarce New Yorkers
Throughout the pandemic, New Yorkers who reported that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the prior week were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depression (Figure 1). In September 2021, the proportion of food-scarce New Yorkers reporting poor mental health was twice as high as the proportion of food-secure New Yorkers reporting poor mental health (73% compared with 31%). In prior research, we showed that this relationship was consistent across all subgroups of race/ethnicity, income levels, and age.
The Association Between Food Scarcity and Mental Health
Identifying as food scarce was the factor most associated with New Yorkers experiencing depression and anxiety, even after controlling for sociodemographic variables including race, ethnicity, income, age, and recent loss of household income. From July to September 2021:
- Living in a household that often did not have enough to eat in the last week was associated with a 34% increase in reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in the last two weeks, compared with households that were not food scarce (Figure 2).
- Less severe forms of food scarcity were also associated with symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Living in a household that sometimes did not have enough to eat in the last week was associated with a 30% increase in anxiety and/or depression symptoms, and living in a household that did not have the kinds of food it wanted to eat in the last week was associated with an 18% increase in symptoms of anxiety/and or depression.
- These three types of food scarcity were associated with the highest reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression out of all the socioeconomic and demographic factors analyzed.
The food we eat has a direct impact on our physical health. Food, and access to enough nutritious food, also has an impact on our mental health. Although this analysis does not definitively demonstrate that food scarcity causes anxiety and depression, it is clear that food insecurity does exacerbate these conditions. The research has implications for programs to address food scarcity and improve mental health. For example, co-locating mental health services at food assistance locations (e.g., SNAP enrollment centers, food pantries) may help in connecting New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity with the mental health services they need. Finally, the research underscores the critical role that federal food assistance programs (i.e., SNAP, WIC) play in providing benefits that allow households to buy nutritious food, thereby reducing some of the stress and anxiety caused by food insecurity.