To be considered equally deserving of nutritious food is a universal and fundamental human right. Unfortunately, for a significant number of women living in America do not have access to sufficient food to feed themselves and their families. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity rates for households with children headed by a single mother (30.3%) and for women living alone (14.7%) are very high. It’s no secret that, globally, women have access to fewer resources and face more barriers to economic participation than their male counterparts. But many people find it hard to understand how a gendered hunger disparity can exist in one of the richest countries in the world.
America’s gendered hunger gap is complicated, as it is the result of the intersection of many economic and social inequalities including gender discrimination in pay, motherhood care responsibilities and pregnancy risks, gender-based violence, and insufficient federal nutrition programs.
Gender Discrimination in Pay and Benefits
Female-headed households, particularly those led by women of color, are more likely to be food-insecure and to live in poverty than other U.S. households. A major part of this issue is women are not making enough money to supplement the nutritional needs of their families.
According to research from Bread for the World, American women are twice as likely to work in low-wage, part-time jobs with few to no benefits. This means many women, particularly single mothers, lack health insurance and basic medical care, leaving them vulnerable to the loss of essential income or potentially their jobs if they are too sick to go to work. In order to effectively fight hunger among women and their families, women need to have access to decent work opportunities with livable wages and sufficient employment benefits.
Motherhood Care Responsibilities
Studies indicate that one in three single mothers struggles to feed herself and her children. In dire situations, women are usually the first to sacrifice meals so that their children may eat. Mothers struggling with food insecurity will go to great lengths to protect the well-being of their children, even at the expense of their own nutrition. These types of situations often spiral into vicious cycles wherein undernourished mothers become highly susceptible to illness and disease, which can render them unable to go to work or take care of their children. Furthermore, malnourished mothers are likely to experience a number of health risks during pregnancy, including gestational diabetes, iron deficiencies, and low birth weights for their babies.
Domestic duties also weigh heavily on food-insecure women. Single mothers often struggle to find suitable child childcare and may have to repeatedly call out of work, jeopardizing their employment and income. The continuous labor of scraping together dinners to put on the table and the emotional stress of dealing with hungry kids can take its toll on any mother.
Violence against women is a widespread epidemic in this country, infiltrating both private and public spheres of life. Domestic violence greatly affects women’s abilities to “produce, process and prepare food for their families.” As tensions grow in hungry households, women become more at risk for physical and emotional abuse, leaving them less able to hold a stable job and provide for the family. Women who leave abusive relationships and households are more likely to become homeless, economically vulnerable and food-insecure. Food security is a huge component of general human security. Women ought to be entitled to the chance to feed their families and be free from the threat of violence.
Insufficient Federal Nutrition Programs
SNAP, WIC, and other federal nutrition programs often serve as crucial supports for food-insecure women and their families. Research shows that food-insecure mothers of young families who received SNAP were less likely to experience maternal depression and be in poor health than mothers who did not receive such benefits. But even with the positive impacts that SNAP has on individuals and families, the benefits are inadequate to fully support a food-insecure household.
Anti-hunger advocates nationwide are taking action to protect and strengthen these vital nutrition programs and challenge any budgetary or legislative threats to the programs. Many families would be economically devastated if they suddenly lost their SNAP benefits. Ensuring that this nutrition safety net remains intact will help women and families who are struggling against hunger live healthier lives.
What Can We Do?
All in all, there is no simple solution to closing the gendered hunger gap in America. But one thing that is certain is that ending hunger means leaving no one behind. Work must be done to aid and support the communities and individuals most affected by hunger and poverty. This means targeting every social injustice that adds to the burden that food-insecure women face, such as unequal pay, lack of proper health care and domestic violence. Closing the hunger gap is possible, but it will take a lot of hard work and social change to get there.