Utah’s minority communities disproportionately affected by food insecurity

The Task Force on Food Security would aim to resolve the current barriers of food accessibility.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 24, 2020, photo shows volunteers Leilani Vatuvei, left, and her sister Eime Vatuvi handing out food from the Utah Food Bank to needy families. During the pandemic, racial and ethnic minority communities were disproportionately affected by food insecurity. A bill in the Utah Legislature would create a task force to try to address the issue.

A bill advancing in the Utah Legislature would create a task force to address the issue of food insecurity in Utah and ensure minority families have access to healthy food.

Sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, SB141 would develop a plan to ensure food security through a task force composed of Utah state agencies and advocacy groups.

The measure won approval in its first Senate floor vote Friday a day after passing out of committee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life.

“In February 2020, food insecurity in Utah was about 8.2%, meaning one in 12 households in our state said they were having food security issues. By December 2020, it was one in five households,” Escamilla said during the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

During the pandemic, racial and ethnic minority communities were disproportionately impacted. “For Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities, [food insecurity] is nearly double the 19.3% that was reported in December,” Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has identified food insecurity as a public health problem associated with poor cognitive and emotional development in children, and depression and poor health in adults.

“Adults with very low food security have a higher risk of cardiovascular events than those with traditional risk factors,” Maryann Martindale, executive director of The Utah Academy of Family Physicians, said. “In children and adolescents, it increases the risk of hypertension, asthma, obesity, poor nutrition, infection, anemia, untreated dental problems, poorly developed social and emotional skills, poor academic achievement, and behavioral problems.”

Martindale said food insecurity leads to desperate tactics such as parents foregoing food to feed children, teens foregoing meals to feed younger siblings and neglect of health and medical issues.

During the pandemic, Utahns turned to school and community food pantries like The Utah Food Bank. While food pantries continue to play a vital role in improving food security, there may be other barriers Utahns face in accessing food.

“We answer phone calls from families, seniors, people with disabilities, who are struggling to figure out how to buy food for their families or how they’re going to get to a food pantry,” Cornia said. “Hunger and food security isn’t about not having enough food, it’s about access.”

These barriers include complex online systems, lack of transportation, language barriers for immigrants and refugees and lack of access to culturally appropriate food among other obstacles, Cornia said.

“SB141 gives us the opportunity to break down those barriers and address the underlying policy issues that prevent people from having enough food,” she added.

The Task Force on Food Security would be made up of special state agencies and entities to come up with policy for local and state government.

Among these agencies would be The Department of Health, The Department of Workforce Services, The State Board of Education, The Department of Agriculture, among others. In addition, advocacy groups, food assistance organizations, and representatives from racial and ethnic minority communities would be present.

“The state is not going to solve everything, but it can certainly help,” Escamilla said.