Utah Study Finds Lack of Info Hinders Access to Food Programs

A new study, conducted in 99 Utah communities, reveals how poor communication and/or a lack of information could be hindering efforts to connect some people in need with food stamps, food banks, soup kitchens, and other food resources.

Around 1 in 8 households in Utah struggle to provide food for their families, according to the Food & Research Action Center, a national anti-hunger advocacy group.

According to the findings, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36 of the 99 communities were designated as either “food insecure” (in great need of food assistance programs and information about them), “information deserts” (residents have little knowledge of food programs), or “information uncertain” (residents use food stamps but may have access to other helpful information).

The University of Utah study identifies previously undetected areas in the state where a lack of information about food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, is thwarting efforts to alleviate food insecurity in Utah.

Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of acquiring safe and nutritional food.

“Our findings offer a unique picture of food needs in our state that has been previously available,” says Nasser Sharareh, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Population Health Sciences.

“It clearly suggests that future efforts to combat food insecurity in Utah should include better use of media and other communications channels to improve awareness of referral services that help people learn more about SNAP and other emergency food providers in their communities.”

In the past, accessibility or availability of food resources, such as grocery stores, and the ability of individuals or households to buy that food were two key measures of food insecurity. However, these traditional indicators may not fully reflect the scope of the problem.

To determine what role information — or the lack of it — has on requests for food assistance in the state, the research team tracked SNAP enrollment in 99 Utah communities for a year. Then, they correlated that data with food information requests received from those communities by United Way 211 (UW211), a nonprofit emergency services referral hotline.

Using data analysis and a geographic information system (GIS) method, the researchers identified four clusters of communities (total number in parenthesis):

  • Food Secure (63): SNAP enrollment and UW211 call rates are both low. Residents likely have little or no need for food assistance programs or information about them;
  • Food Insecure (14): SNAP enrollment and UW211 call rates are high; residents are in great need of food assistance programs and information about them;
  • Information Deserts (11): Low SNAP enrollment but high rate of UW211 calls. Residents might not be aware of SNAP and have little or no knowledge of other community food resources. In these “deserts,” UW211 serves as a vital “oasis,” referring information-starved callers to community food resources that they were previously unaware of;
  • Information Uncertain (11): High SNAP participation and low rate of UW211 calls. Residents use SNAP but might not be aware of UW211. SNAP alone might be meeting their existing needs.

The researchers will continue tracking how information availability influences requests for food assistance, particularly in the 22 newly identified “information deserts” and “information uncertain” communities that are at high risk of becoming food insecure in the future. In the meantime, the team hopes their study helps inform public policy decisions regarding food assistance.

“This study offers emergency food providers with a snapshot of where their services are most needed and why they need to bolster their efforts to get timely and reliable information into the hands of those seeking their help,” said Andrea Wallace, Ph.D., R.N., the study’s senior author and chair of health systems and community-based care in the College of Nursing.

“It could lead to policies that help communities better serve residents in need of food assistance, now and in the future.”

Based on these findings, the researchers plan to expand their work to identify at-risk communities in more than 15 other states.

Source: University of Utah Health

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