May 20, 2022

UB grant to aid mobile markets; study shows more mental health woes with food insecurity

The University at Buffalo has been awarded a grant to help mobile food markets improve…

The University at Buffalo has been awarded a grant to help mobile food markets improve their efficiency and sustainability. The announcement coincides with the release of a study which suggests people living with food scarcity during the COVID pandemic have experienced twice the level of mental health issues than their counterparts who have been able to find their next meal with little difficulty.

The study, issued by the New York State Health Foundation, reports about 73 percent of food-scarce New Yorkers surveyed reported troubled mental health, compared to 31 percent of food-secure New Yorkers.

“While our findings were not necessarily surprising, the strength of the association between food insecurity and anxiety and depression is really what was staggering and sobering,” said Avital Havusha, Vice President of Programs for the Foundation. Our findings showed that food scarcity was really the factor most associated with New Yorkers experiencing depression and anxiety, even after we controlled for things like race, ethnicity, income, age, and recent loss of household income.”

The problem of food scarcity predates COVID for many New York families, and the stress related to it is also nothing new. While the Foundation study does not directly link food insecurity to mental health issues, Havusha notes researchers had already found higher instances of anxiety or depression among those who stressed over having to make difficult spending decisions including the purchase of food, paying a bill, or paying for a medication or medical appointment. For many, limited resources may mean bypassing healthy food and instead choosing cheaper but far less healthy options.

Often times the problem is a lack of access to healthy food vendors, including supermarkets. Mobile markets, in recent years, have worked to fill the needs of underserved individuals and neighborhoods.

The University at Buffalo’s Veggie Van Training Center is receiving $750,000 from the US Department of Agriculture to aid a mobile market network and help its members by providing training on evidence-based practices.

“The biggest piece of it is going to be working with our leadership team of mobile markets from across the country, to do strategic planning, to further build out and develop the mobile market coalition and understand what that’s gonna look like,” said Lucia Leone, associate professor of Community Health and Health Behavior at the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Mobile markets were first thought by many to be a temporary option for neighborhoods that lacked a supermarket, and anticipated one might come in the future. But Leone says the mobile options have found their own place within those communities, especially in terms of community engagement. Many, for example, are community owned and operated. Some have advisory boards, while some have student ambassador programs. They also provide an alternative for some who, having hit hard times, might not feel entirely comfortable going to a traditional food pantry.

“They also differ from grocery stores in that they focus mostly on healthy foods,” Leone said. “So even though a grocery store might offer health, you know, some fruits and vegetables, mobile markets really focus as that as their primary thing. And it’s something that tends to be the most challenging to find in some underserved communities, fresh affordable produce.”

The Foundation concludes that its findings, meanwhile, highlight the need for programs to explore ways to curb the stress of seeking healthy and adequate food supplies. One example it offers is co-locating mental health services at food pantries or at centers that enroll individuals in benefit progams such as SNAP or WIC.

The Foundation also points out that there are opportunities and incentives available to help lower income families access adequate healthy foods.

“In Western New York, for example, there’s a program that we’ve supported, that’s being expanded, called the Double Up Food Bucks program,” Havusha said. “It really gives people in their hands kind of a dollar-for-dollar match when they use their SNAP card at a participating farmers market or small retail location, sometimes the corner store. If they spend one dollar in SNAP benefits, they get another dollar to buy fresh fruits and veggies that were grown here in New York State. There’s many examples like that to really kind of extend that purchasing power so people can really buy healthy foods at an affordable price.”