Researchers study food insecurity and obesity in Connecticut

Rebecca Boehm
Rebecca Boehm

Individuals who experience higher levels of food insecurity are often forced to make sacrifices in the quality of their diet. This is an issue because cheap calories are not necessarily healthy calories. As an example, you can order two cheeseburgers, medium fries and a Diet Coke® from McDonald’s for under five dollars and receive 930 calories. According to research by the Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research at Duke, it costs nearly $20 to get the same caloric intake from low-energy but nutritious foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables). If you are living on a fixed income, it might be hard to improve the quality of your diet, especially if you do not have enough money to buy food.

In a Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy Outreach Report published last month, the research team of former Postdoctoral Fellow Rebecca Boehm, Associate Extension Educator Jiff Martin, CAHNR alumna and current Senior Director of Community Partnership and Programs at the Connecticut Food Bank Jaime Foster and Director of Zwick Center and Professor and Head of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics  Rigoberto A. Lopez examined the link between food insecurity and obesity in the state of Connecticut.

Using household responses collected in the 2015 DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey, they found that 12.4 percent of households surveyed reported not having enough money to buy food at some point in the year and were classified as food insecure households. Of these households experiencing food insecurity, 61.6 percent reported this happening for more than two months in 2015. The level of food insecurity that was experienced by households was not equally seen across the state. Households in more affluent towns, like Glastonbury, reported a much lower percentage of food insecurity than all of the major cities in the state, as well as more rural areas, such as all of Windham County.

The level of food insecurity also varied across racial and ethnic groups, with Asian and White residents experiencing lower levels of food insecurity compared to other groups in the sample. At the same time, researchers examined persistent food insecurity and found something unique about White households. This group, when they experienced food insecurity, were more likely to experience prolonged food insecurity than the other groups, although the reported difference was not large.

A final point on food insecurity, which is worth noting from the research, is that households with children under the age of 18 are far more likely to experience food insecurity than households without children.

In terms of obesity, 25.6 percent of household respondents in Connecticut reported a Body Mass Index that would classify them as obese. An additional 36 percent of household respondents were classified as overweight. Although the report did not directly assess the causal link between food insecure and obesity, the authors did find that food insecure households were 6.6 percent more likely to have an overweight or obese household respondent than households who did not report food insecurity over the year.

Rebecca Boehm, who was a post-doctoral fellow with the Zwick and Rudd Centers at the University of Connecticut at the time this report was written, has since accepted a position as an economist with the Food and Environment Program at Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C.  She said the “initial goal of the study was to provide data and information to governmental and non-governmental organizations working on food insecurity and obesity across Connecticut. We hope the results contained in the final report will help these organizations target their programs and policies to the most at-risk populations in Connecticut.”

Boehm added that one of the main policy implications of this research is that “we need to continue to monitor food insecurity and obesity rates within Connecticut, not just at the state level. Currently, the USDA monitors food insecurity at the state level, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitor obesity and overweight at the state level. Monitoring within the state allows for better targeting of policies and programs.”

For more information, please see Outreach Report No. 54

By Thomas Krumel