Taking a Trauma-Informed Approach to Nutrition Insecurity

Trauma is a pervasive public health problem, and its effects are detrimental to San Diego County residents. While the general understanding of trauma is often limited to commonly accepted adverse events such as violence, neglect, and exposure to substance abuse, food insecurity is also an adverse experience.  Because food security includes access to nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, not just sufficient calories to stay alive, food insecurity is deeply linked with other adversities, such as racism and historical trauma.  These factors, among others, disconnect many San Diego residents from dietary and cultural nourishment.

Considered as adverse experiences for the individual, nutrition insecurity and cultural disconnection are biologically disruptive and negatively impact social, emotional, and cognitive processes.  This disruption can increase cravings for high fat and high sugar food.  Further, trauma creates difficulty in completing tasks such as planning, shopping, or cooking, which are building blocks of a healthy diet, especially when resource-limited. This situation reinforces the low quality processed food options prevalent in many communities with high food insecurity rates.  Further, a history of trauma can also heighten sensitivity, reactivity, and feelings of shame.  When systems designed to support food security – such as CalFresh or the charitable food distribution network –  embed stigma, unnecessarily complex processes, and lack avenues for self-sufficiency and empowerment into their implementation, trauma can be retriggered or exacerbated.  CalFresh and charitable food are not the solutions to chronic food insecurity.  

Trauma happens to communities as well as individuals.  Racism, economic exploitation, and inequities in policies across sectors are adverse experiences for communities who face these high rates of food insecurity.  Viewed through the lens of trauma, food insecurity is not a plight of an individual family but a traumatic adaptation of a traumatized community.  This condition impacts the same systems – social/cultural, economic, built environment – required to support a healthy, sustainable, and more just food system.  For example, community-centered traumas like poor wages and lack of social mobility increase the need for safety net support.  But to make structural changes, other community-centered traumas such as lack of social capital can inhibit the emergence of locally owned food businesses even if financial or programmatic support is in place.

Using a trauma-informed approach asks us to realize the impacts of trauma on our residents and our food system, recognize traumatic adaptations in individual and community behaviors, and build a vision that centers community strengths and embeds healing and protection into all strategies.

Adrienne Markworth is Founder and Director of Leah's Pantry, a nonprofit that seeks to improve health, wellness, and resilience of communities through trauma-informed nutrition. Adrienne focuses on the intersection of public health and food security, implementing trauma-informed practices across nutrition programs.

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