The Psychological Distress of Food Insecurity: A Qualitative Study of the Emotional Experiences of Parents and Their Coping Strategies

J Acad Nutr Diet. 2022 Oct;122(10):1903-1910.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2022.05.010. Epub 2022 May 13.


Background: Food insecurity increases the risks of diet-related chronic disease and mental health outcomes in low-income adults; however, the pathways underlying these associations have not been clearly identified. Chronic, psychological distress may represent an important pathway between food insecurity and health.

Objective: To identify types of psychological distress, experiential descriptions, and the array of emotional responses and coping strategies specific to food insecurity among parents with children DESIGN: A phenomenological qualitative study using one-on-one, in-depth interviews.

Participants and setting: Forty-eight adults (parents) were recruited from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016-17. Eligibility criteria included any experience of household food insecurity over the past 12 months, having a child aged 7 to 14 years, and both parent and child with the ability to speak English fluently.

Statistical analyses: Data were analyzed using the constant comparative method to reveal emergent themes across multiple interviews.

Results: Parents discussed six themes related to the psychological distress of food insecurity: stress from the logistical and financial balancing act of feeding one's family, frustration and lack of choice associated with the high costs of healthy foods, stigma of using community resources, shame of not being able to provide for one's family, sadness about their cyclical and chronic food situation, and guilt over their inability to adequately provide for their children. Coping responses included negative responses, such as sleeping and drinking to avoid thinking about food insecurity, and positive responses of relying on their friends and family for support, staying hopeful, and spending time with their children.

Conclusions: The commonality of emotional responses stemming from the experience of food insecurity can increase the risk for clinical anxiety and depression. Future development of interventions and policies to alleviate food insecurity must include social support and adequate safety systems.

Keywords: Coping; Food insecurity; Parents; Psychological distress; Qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Emotions
  • Food Insecurity
  • Food Supply*
  • Humans
  • Parents / psychology
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Stress, Psychological