It’s Not Just Hunger: Mental Health

December 19, 2022

Mental health and food security have a bidirectional relationship.1-3 An individual experiencing food insecurity is at a heightened risk of experiencing poor mental health and vice versa. Many families struggle to stretch their food budget from one meal to the next, facing obstacles and added strain to obtain the food necessary to lead a healthy lifestyle. As one Full Cart recipient stated, “There has been so much struggle and added stress this past year. Finances have been rough due to loss of income in our household, which makes it harder to put food on the table.” This account and similar stories underline the importance of evaluating the role of mental health in an individual’s ability to acquire food, especially since poor mental health can be a contributing factor to food insecurity. For example, data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging revealed that elderly adults (ages 50-80) who experience fair or poor mental health are more likely to experience food insecurity.4 Of the 2,048 poll respondents, approximately 24% of adults who reported experiencing food insecurity also reported fair or poor mental health.4 In contrast, only 5% of food-secure adults reported fair or poor mental health.4 Results from a U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, furthermore, revealed that households that receive food assistance (i.e., free food or meals from food pantries, food banks, etc.), tend to also report poorer mental health symptoms in the form of increased depression and anxiety.1 These results are telling of the interconnectedness of food insecurity and mental health.

Following the pandemic and its associated economic downturn, poor mental health has become more prevalent with individuals increasingly reporting anxiety and distress about having enough food for themselves and their families.5 Of the 131,473 food assistance applications received by U.S. Hunger to date, approximately 5.5% of individuals have reported feeling “stressed”. An additional 2.3% of the U.S. Hunger population have a self-reported mental illness- most commonly reporting anxiety followed by depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in their food assistance applications. Reduced work hours and physical and mental illness are frequently reported as factors that have interfered with a family’s ability to acquire food. After struggling to find a job to provide a stable income, one Full Cart recipient detailed, “We have never hit rock bottom this low before and the stress is really getting to me as I run our home.” While another mother reported, “I have no relatives in this country with me, and it [is] so difficult physically, mentally and financially that anxiety and depression have been very much with me.  Knowing that my children may be missing their plate of food puts me in a state of horrible anxiety.” Such feelings can foster a sense of hopelessness, dissuading individuals from being resilient in spite of their current circumstances and making them more vulnerable to experiencing low and very low food security.1 Thus, to combat both food insecurity and its associated psychological distress, it is necessary to have social safety nets in place that are easy to navigate and utilize by those who are eligible. 

Social safety nets, such as SNAP and WIC, are essential to providing low-income families with the food they need while also helping to alleviate health disparities. Without access to such resources, food insecurity can become a chronic problem for many families. Facing such challenging circumstances can be difficult to cope with and weigh on individual household members, creating a ripple effect. One applicant explained,  “This year has not been pleasant at all. The added stress of finding work at reasonable pay to try to maintain [the] household is very stressful, which increases tension [in the] household.” The benefits provided by social safety nets, however, can be difficult to access and the application process can be an added stress for those who apply.6,7. Therefore, it is necessary for government agencies to ensure that the application process does not hinder those who qualify from accessing their benefits. Additionally, existing assistance programs may be enhanced by combining them with mental health services to promote overall welling-being among vulnerable families.8 Social safety nets not only benefit individual households but have also been shown to have a generalized positive effect on society since participation in social programs contributes towards lower healthcare costs.9,10

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U.S. Hunger (USH) is a non-partisan, not-for-profit established in 2010, which has mobilized more than 850,000 volunteers to distribute over 147 million nutritional meals as of July 2022. Utilizing real-time data analytics and technology to operate a national home delivery service for the food insecure, USH uses a SaaS-based data tool to gain comprehensive insight into what factors lead individuals to seek food assistance. We work alongside corporate and community partners to identify and provide food assistance to those in need through our Full Cart® program. For more information contact


1. Nagata JM, Ganson KT, Whittle HJ, et al. Food Insufficiency and Mental Health in the U.S. During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Am J Prev Med. Apr 2021;60(4):453-461. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2020.12.004

2. Martin MS, Maddocks E, Chen Y, Gilman SE, Colman I. Food insecurity and mental illness: disproportionate impacts in the context of perceived stress and social isolation. Public Health. Mar 2016;132:86-91. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2015.11.014

3. Bruening M, Dinour LM, Chavez JBR. Food insecurity and emotional health in the USA: a systematic narrative review of longitudinal research. Public Health Nutr. Dec 2017;20(17):3200-3208. doi:10.1017/S1368980017002221

4. Malani P, Kullgren J, Solway E, et al. University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging: How Food Insecurity Affects Older Adults. 2022. May 2022.

5. Sundermeir SM, Wolfson JA, Bertoldo J, Gibson DG, Agarwal S, Labrique AB. Food insecurity is adversely associated with psychological distress, anxiety and depression during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prev Med Rep. Dec 2021;24:101547. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101547

6. Keith-Jennings B, Llobrera J, Dean S. Links of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program With Food Insecurity, Poverty, and Health: Evidence and Potential. Am J Public Health. Dec 2019;109(12):1636-1640. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2019.305325

7. Chaparro M, Harrison G, Pebley A, Wang M. The Relationship Between Obesity and Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Is Mental Health a Mediator? J Hunger Environ Nutr; 2014. doi:10.1080/19320248.2014.962780

8. Radey M, McWey L, Cui M. Psychological distress among low-income mothers: the role of public and private safety nets. Women Health. Jul 2020;60(6):692-706. doi:10.1080/03630242.2019.1700586

9. Arteaga I, Hodges L, Heflin C. Giving kids a boost: The positive relationship between frequency of SNAP participation and Infant’s preventative health care utilization. SSM Popul Health. Sep 2021;15:100910. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100910

10. Berkowitz SA, Palakshappa D, Rigdon J, Seligman HK, Basu S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Health Care Use in Older Adults: A Cohort Study. Ann Intern Med. Dec 2021;174(12):1674-1682. doi:10.7326/M21-1588