Addressing Food Insecurity in Immigrant Populations at Food Banks

March 28th, 2021

By Ambreen Bano Imran

After moving to the United States, immigrants face many challenges, such as lack of employment, housing insecurity, and limited social capital. Unable to find jobs, most immigrants suffer from food insecurity and have to rely on food banks. Though food banks cater to varied populations, it is impossible to cater to all immigrants’ needs individually. Moreover, food banks rely on donations to provide food to their customers, and most donors are unfamiliar with immigrants’ dietary needs and either provide food that they cannot consume or do not know how to use.

While in my undergraduate program, I volunteered with Project SHARE, a food bank in Carlisle, PA. Later, for an undergraduate research project, I got in touch with Project SHARE to see if there was room to collaborate on a research project. The gap between what patrons of Project SHARE needed and what the donors were providing was brought to my attention by the nutrition educator.

As an immigrant, although lucky I do not have to rely on a food bank, I could relate and empathize with other immigrants’ needs and became passionate about the research. Moving to the United States and making fruits and vegetables a part of their diet is hard for some as they can be expensive especially if compared to immigrant’s home countries. To add some perspective, a cheeseburger costs about $2.40, whereas a salad costs about $7. When struggling financially and food insecure, it is more attainable to buy a burger than a salad.

Our research for Project SHARE focused on Middle Eastern and North African clients of the food bank and investigated if these patrons were getting foods they were used to consuming in their home countries. However, due to COVID-19, the project was modified to conduct a meta-analysis to support or reject our hypothesis. The hypothesis was that immigrants’ diets would change after moving to the U.S. The shift caused by the pandemic allowed our research to include immigrants from other countries.

A summary of the findings found that after moving to the United States, immigrant health suffers significantly. Immigrants were not getting the foods that they were getting in their home countries. While they were used to consuming many fruits and vegetables before moving to the U.S., this decreased exponentially after migration. Processed food consumption increased and began to have accompanying health issues. According to one research, 80% of the food pantry participants were either overweight or obese, 17% had diabetes, greater than 35% had high blood pressure, and 43% had high cholesterol (1). Further, people suffering from food insecurity have higher rates of depression, obesity, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and low self-esteem. Another study pointed out that immigrants suffering food insecurity in the U.S. lacked consistent fresh produce and nutrient-dense foods (2). Instead, food-insecure immigrants consumed more sugary and fried foods.

As RDs/RDNs and NDTRs, it is imperative to work with food banks and immigrants to understand what their diets were in their home countries and make strategic modifications to support them. In coalition with Dickinson College, Project SHARE is growing culturally relevant vegetables for its recipients starting from the summer of 2021. However, there needs to be a greater effort from the dietetics community to meet this important and vulnerable group’s needs.

  1. Kaiser ML, Hermsen J. Food Acquisition Strategies, Food Security, and Health Status Among Families With Children Using Food Pantries. Fam Soc J Contemp Soc Serv. 2015;96(2):83-90. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.2015.96.16
  2. Maynard M, Dean J, Rodriguez PI, Sriranganathan G, Qutub M, Kirkpatrick SI. The Experience of Food Insecurity Among Immigrants: a Scoping Review. J Int Migr Integr. 2019;20(2):375-417. doi:10.1007/s12134-018-0613-x

About the Author

Ambreen Bano Imran is a dietetics intern at Penn State University. Ambreen changed careers to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Ambreen is passionate about helping those with food insecurity, body image issues, and eating disorders.

Posted by: Talia Follador

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