Research Brief

Discrimination and safety concerns are barriers to accessing healthy food for food-insecure emerging adults

A woman shops over a table covered with fresh produce at a farmer's market

The steep rise in food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and persons of color across the U.S. Emerging adulthood (i.e., 18- to 29-year-olds) is a time of particular vulnerability for experiencing food insecurity and when young people may begin providing meals for their own children. 

University of Minnesota School of Public Health researchers recently completed a study to determine how food-insecure emerging adults adapted their eating and child-feeding behaviors during COVID-19. The researchers also sought to identify barriers to food access and opportunities to improve local access to resources for emerging adults. The study results were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Researchers used data from the COVID-19 Eating and Activity over Time (C-EAT) study, which collected survey data from 720 emerging adults from April to October 2020 and included interviews with a diverse subset of 33 food-insecure respondents. 

The study found:

  • Nearly one-third of emerging adults experienced food insecurity in the past year.
  • A disproportionately high prevalence of food insecurity and food insufficiency among emerging adults living with children and those who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color.
  • Many food insecure emerging adults made changes to their eating and feeding behaviors to cope during the pandemic — and several of the changes, such as consuming more processed foods or increased sporadic eating, could lead to negative health consequences.
  • Food-insecure emerging adults reported concerns regarding the implementation of measures used to reduce COVID-19 transmission in food retail stores and other notable barriers to local food access (e.g., reduced store hours, neighborhood safety concerns). 
  • Interview participants of diverse ethnic/racial backgrounds reported several forms of discrimination they experienced while shopping in food retail stores and how concerns about discrimination influenced how their households managed shopping for food. The forms of discrimination included excessive monitoring and verbal harassment tied to ethnicity/race and xenophobia.
  • Barriers to accessing food assistance were also themes among the comments made by food-insecure emerging adults. Most services were provided in line with guidance for preventing COVID-19 transmission, but factors limiting eligibility for benefits and access to emergency food assistance were identified along with some concerns about food quality, physical distancing, and physical safety at food pantries.

“Our findings show an urgent need for research to address how the processes of racism that are embedded in the policies and practices of society and institutions are directly contributing to food insecurity,” said study lead Nicole Larson, a nutritional epidemiologist and registered dietitian in the School of Public Health. “The findings also support recent calls for expanding federal food assistance benefits for postsecondary students as the comments made by many emerging adult participants indicated that both students and workers were not eligible for adequate benefits to meet their food needs.” 

Larson added that even among households that reported receiving federal food assistance (e.g., SNAP), there were multiple emerging adults who reported needing to obtain food from local food pantries or distribution sites. The study results also highlighted the importance of ensuring that information about emergency food assistance sites is broadly distributed through multiple communication channels and the need to vary the open hours of sites to address the needs of emerging adults who may need to visit outside of regular daytime hours.

The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Media Contacts

Jake Ricker

University Public Relations