Good nutrition and decent affordable housing are vital components of personal health, well-being, educational attainment and positive economic outcomes. However, there are significant accessibility and affordability barriers faced by low-income families that jeopardize stable homes and healthy diets. Because nutrition is a key factor in health outcomes that can enhance or detract from quality of life for individuals and communities alike, improving nutrition for residents of low-income communities is crucial to expanding opportunity.
The ability to find affordable housing can have an enormous impact on a household’s ability to afford life’s other necessities, which means that many families are forced to cut spending on healthy food just to keep a roof overhead. To this end, it is no surprise that the majority of places with limited access to nutritious food have high concentrations of lower-income households with children.
The twin challenges of food insecurity and housing insecurity are similar in their staggering scale: there are currently 49 million people in the United States suffering from food insecurity and 30 million living in areas with limited access to healthy food options. Concurrently, there are nearly 47 million renters who are considered to be cost burdened, among them 25 million people who pay more than half their income in rent.
As a result, in addition to a lack of affordable housing, many low-income families face significant barriers to achieving and maintaining balanced diets. These barriers include high food prices coupled with inadequate incomes to meet basic needs, limited access to healthy food options and restrictions on use of public assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps).
Currently, there are a range of policies, programs, and services expanding access to healthy foods and nutrition education. Two critical areas of focus are capital solutions to expand access to nutritious food and eliminate food deserts and educational efforts to help individuals and families make healthier dietary choices. The organizations implementing these initiatives are socializing healthy behaviors and creating a framework through which new ideas can be introduced and implemented.
Affordable housing and health providers can and should play an essential role alongside their community counterparts in efforts to improve resident nutrition. There are many ways to take a more active stance on this issue, including:
- Expanding on-site access to healthy foods by partnering with local food assistance programs (such as food banks and food pantries) and facilitating the use of online delivery programs;
- Serving as a resource for more economical collective/bulk purchasing of healthy foods;
- Crafting and coordinating educational efforts in partnership with schools, public health organizations and other entities that provide nutritional information;
- Utilizing resident services and common space to reinforce messages from other institutions to fill key gaps in outreach and promote a culture of healthy eating in everyday life; and
- Connecting families to healthy foods by encouraging mixed-use development, expanding transit, and adopting housing-based solutions.
As a crucial part of the social safety net, community developers and affordable housing providers should fully engage with all stakeholders to play a pivotal role in providing access to both nutritious food and the information necessary to guide healthy dietary decisions. Healthy living leads to opportunity, and that all starts with a stable home.