Food Insecurity and The Autoimmune Protocol

A single orange slice sitting atop a blue plate

This year at Autoimmune Wellness we’ve done a lot of reflecting on what equity and collaboration really mean in the health and wellness space, specifically in the AIP community. In a community centered on a healing dietary protocol there is one topic that we knew had to be addressed in terms of equity . . . food insecurity. This is a particularly important topic for me, because there was a point in my life where food insecurity was a reality. I’ve asked myself many times over the years, “Could I have realistically used AIP to heal while my daughter and I were on food stamps?” The intention of this article is to provide a greater understanding of food insecurity to our community and explore that question.

What Is Food Insecurity?

On September 2nd, The New York Times Magazine published an article titled, “America At Hunger’s Edge.” The article is a series of interactive photographs and reporting on food insecure families from New York to California, capturing how they try to keep food on the table. It’s a moving article and for some people, probably shocking. The article begins, “Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that takes.”

In researching this article, the above definition of food insecurity was one of the best I came across. There are others that I appreciated for being more technically accurate, like the definition by Brooklynne Palmer, a medical student sharing about culinary medicine on Instagram, “ . . . food insecurity means that a person does not have reliable access to a sufficient amount of quality and affordable nutritious food.” Or, a definition from Christyna Johnson, a Registered Dietician sharing about nutrition on Instagram, “[Food insecurity is a] disruption in food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources.” The definition in the NYT article hit on something emotional we can lose sight of in these discussions on food insecurity though: it is not just lack of actual food or lack of resources to get food, it is the stress of constant worry about when you will next be able to eat. The threat of food deprivation alone is harmful to health and wellness.

Who Faces Food Insecurity?

While Americans of all backgrounds face food insecurity, it does disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic/People of Color (BIPOC) families. Black and Hispanic families are twice as likely to face food insecurity as white families. According to a 2017 Native Partnership report, Native American families are 400% more likely to report not having enough to eat, compared to average US households. If you, like us, find those numbers appalling, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why is it like this?”

What Causes Food Insecurity?

Inequities in every area of life (school, work, housing, food access, and health) lead to food insecurity, but overall, the cause is poverty. According to Feeding America, in 2019, 34 million Americans lived in poverty, which is defined as an income of $25,000 or less per year (federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour for 40 hours/week, even for a 1-person household falls well below $25,000/year). That’s about 11% of our population. The organization estimates during the pandemic this number might rise to 54 million.

Again, as before, poverty disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic families. We can see those inequities in every area of life leading to food insecurity for these vulnerable populations:

  • School // For example, the Alliance To End Hunger put out a fact sheet in 2017 that showed when it comes to school, those “with 90% white students spend $733 more per student than schools with 90% or more students of color.” Naturally, nutritious meals are less likely to be provided in a school environment where the budget is so low.
  • Work // When it comes to work, “people of color face a wage gap and disproportionately populate America’s low-wage workforce.” A livable wage is key to food security.
  • Housing and Food Access // Housing and food access come into play here too. For example, The Food Empowerment Project points out that “white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black ones do, and that grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection.” The occurrence is sometimes known as “supermarket redlining,” a legacy of discriminatory housing practices that started in the 1930s. While the Alliance To End Hunger shows, “24% of African Americans, 17% of Latinos, and 13% of Asian Americans do not own cars.” If your home is in an area that doesn’t afford you access to food or quality food or if getting to a grocery store is difficult and time-consuming, it contributes to food insecurity.
  • Health // Food insecurity impacts health (and I would argue creates a looping cycle for vulnerable people). Again, the Alliance to End Hunger shows, “low proximity to supermarkets correlates with high rates of obesity, diabetes, and diet-related diseases.” In this community, we know without a doubt, autoimmune disease is part of this picture.

What Does This Mean for the AIP Community?

We know what food insecurity is now, we know who faces it, what causes it, and the disproportionate impact it has on BIPOC communities. So, what does that mean for the AIP community?

I think the first thing it means for our community is plainly acknowledging that there are structural and systemic factors that lead to food insecurity and community care looks like taking action to address them. This is like identifying root causes to autoimmune disease or chronic illness and focusing on addressing them, rather than only calling out symptoms and trying to suppress them.

Secondly, I think it means our community has to do a better job recognizing hierarchy of needs. This especially applies to those of us who work directly with clients or patients as health coaches, nutritionists, RDs, RNs, NDs, MDs, etc., but it also applies to regular folks who seek to give and get support in the AIP community. We need to create an environment where we recognize that a human being needs enough and predictable access to food, before we start stressing the types, variety, or quality of food.

Can Those Facing Food Insecurity Realistically Use AIP to heal?

Now, to explore our ultimate question . . . I do think it’s possible for someone with autoimmune disease, who is also facing food insecurity, to use AIP as part of their healing toolkit. However, they’ll need guidance on how to modify the AIP template in ways that will allow them to support their immune system and make positive progress on their health baseline, while still being manageable in terms of all the factors we’ve taken into account here.

The guidance I wrote up earlier this year in, “How To AIP During A Pandemic” is very applicable and useful in food insecure situation as well. The modification dos, don’ts, advice on food quality, and ideas about stocking up laid out in that article could be a good starting point to help you or someone your assisting in determining what’s achievable depending on their situation. Additionally, our whole third season of The Autoimmune Wellness podcast discusses ways to stretch budgets and access as much as possible to make AIP possible for more people.

I realize that this guidance is just a very basic starting point and some situations will present such extreme challenges, that AIP may not be possible. In fact, in some cases, it might just be a source of additional stress. I hope in 2021 we can take this conversation further here at Autoimmune Wellness and bring in diverse voices to offer new thoughts and ideas that could make the healing power of AIP accessible to people at every economic level and in any group. The NYT article we began with ends with, “In the richest nation on earth, they live at the edge of hunger.” Ultimately, I hope understanding the painful truth of that statement, laid out here in my own article, inspires action in the AIP community to address the root causes of food insecurity.

 

About Angie Alt

Angie Alt is a co-founder here at Autoimmune Wellness. She helps others take charge of their health the same way she took charge of her own after suffering with celiac disease, endometriosis, and lichen sclerosis; one nutritious step at a time. Her special focus is on mixing “data with soul” by looking at the honest heart of the autoimmune journey (which sometimes includes curse words). She is a Certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Nutritional Therapy Consultant through The Nutritional Therapy Association and author of The Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook: Eating for All Phases of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol and The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook. You can also find her on Instagram.

3 comments

  • Tracy Huling says

    A timely, needed, and thoughtful essay. I look forward to reading the additional material at the links provided. Thank you!

  • Jessica says

    Thank you so much for finally bringing up this issue, it really needs to be addressed in the context of AIP. As a AIP follower with hashimotos and also as a Oregon Department of Human Services employee I see the interaction of these two factors daily. For many people here who don’t have to worry about food insecurity it may seem far away and irrelevant, but really we are all one community and as we improve the health of those around us we enrich our own communities. I look forward to seeing more concrete information on this web site about how we can do that.

    • Angie Alt says

      Jessica, you’re welcome! Thank you for reading & bringing your professional views on this to the conversation. We hope to be able to more fully & concretely address this topic in the coming year. It is a challenging issue & quite frankly, is going to require some political movement to address root causes & truly carry out community care.

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