People experiencing homelessness and imminent risk of homelessness struggle to maintain a healthy diet, which has grown even more difficult during COVID-19. BEDS has expanded its Food Rescue program to reach a growing number of “food insecure” clients. Let’s learn more.
How Are Food Insecurity and Homelessness Related?
People experiencing poverty and homelessness often qualify as food insecure. Feeding America, the national food bank network, defines this ungainly term as a "lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life." They’re summarizing the USDA’s formal definition, which further breaks down food security by severity: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security. The most salient part of the USDA definition comes in its accompanying list of characteristics of households with very low food security, including that 94 percent “could not afford to eat balanced meals.” BEDS has been seeing growing food insecurity among its clients. The chronically homeless, an increasing segment of our population, have always been the most vulnerable, and, with COVID-19, more households have been trapped in cruel dilemmas between buying food and paying rent.
How Do People Experiencing Homelessness Eat?
People experiencing homelessness become trapped in poor diets. Some research (see: substitution hypothesis summary) suggests that the food insecure practice a sort of survival economics, in which they choose cheaper, ultra-processed foods stuffed with starch, sugars, and fats over more expensive, nutritious options. Once people lose housing, they cannot store meat, produce, perishables, prep tools, and utensils, and these substitutions grow acute. Many rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants, which also have the added benefits of restrooms, temporary shelter, and 24-hour operations. (For example, a 2020 survey found that the McDonald’s dollar menu was the most crucial factor helping people experiencing homelessness “survive on the streets with little to no money” ) Even soup kitchen meals often contain high sodium, starch, and fat, with little fiber and other nutrients.
Fast food and other low-cost options maximize calories per dollar, but, as freelance writer and chef Katy Severson points out, “calories aren’t created equally.” Ultra-processed foods supply brief jolts of energy but do not include the nutrients we need to sustain ourselves. It’s important to remember that choosing these foods doesn’t just result from a cost-benefits analysis. Food manufacturers and fast-food chains engineer their products to be addictive, and in food deserts, lower-income neighborhoods without supermarkets or large grocery stores, they may be the only choice.
What Are the Effects of Their Diet?
People experiencing homelessness’ diets make their day to day lives, to say nothing of regaining housing, more difficult. The Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness lists common health and behavioral health effects including:
- Slower healing from cuts, scratches, and other minor injuries.
- Low blood pressure, dizziness, fatigue, and difficulty walking.
- Depression, irritability, and other mood effects.
- Weakened immune system and higher risks of infectious diseases.
- Cardiometabolic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
How Does BEDS Help?
Our Food Rescue program expanded in response to COVID-19. We’ve strongly encouraged our clients to shelter in place in their shelter motel rooms and permanent supportive housing units, and we regularly deliver fully cooked meals, meat and produce, and healthy snacks. A growing number of area restaurants, grocery stores, food banks and pantries, individual donors, and volunteers supply freshly cooked meals and food products in support of these efforts.
We’ve also just received a grant from the Illinois Public Health Institute to strengthen food offerings at our Ogden Avenue Supportive Housing (OASH) facility. Our food rescue and housing staff have undergone nutrition training and started working toward program goals, including offering a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole-rich grains, and non-fried and plant proteins each day.
 For perspective, McDonald’s $1, $2, $3 Menu includes its Sausage Biscuit (460 calories), Sausage McMuffin (400 calories), Sausage McGriddles (430 calories), Hash Browns (140 calories), McDouble (400 calories), McChicken (400 calories), Four-Piece Chicken McNuggets (170 calories), World Famous Fries (220 calories), and assorted soft drinks. Every Friday, customers can add medium-size World Famous Fries (320 calories) to any order of a dollar or more for free.
 This one always provokes internet message board outrage, e.g., “if they’re so poor and hungry, then how are they obese?” The answer should be clear from the above: they may only be able to access and afford ultra-processed foods, which share addictive properties with cocaine and heroin.