A person’s ability to consistently obtain appropriate quantities of nutritious foods can strongly impact the quality of their life, both directly and indirectly. Hunger can cause significant physical damage to the body, but it also inhibits nearly every other facet of the lives of those whom if affects. The distraction and discomfort of hunger interferes with our ability to function in our personal, social, and professional lives. When a person is consumed with the worry of where their next meal will come from, advancing their career or maintaining other elements of their life become afterthoughts. Hunger also causes children to become distracted and unable to perform adequately in school. When a person regularly experiences compromises to the quality and quantity of meals, this is known as food insecurity, and people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to this condition for a variety of reasons.
Poverty and Income Restraints
The foremost cause of food insecurity is poverty. There are several other elements that affect food insecurity and hunger, but an inability to afford groceries is, by far, the main contributor. Poverty is also one of the main aspects of food insecurity that connects it with disability because poverty is more prevalent in people with disabilities than in the general population. Working-aged adults with disabilities are roughly twice as likely to live below the poverty line, and the rate of poverty among women with disabilities is even higher than that of their male counterparts. Considering these facts, it’s not surprising that families who have a member with a disability are nearly 2 to 3 times more likely to experience food insecurity than those who do not have a member with a disability. Compounding these issues is the fact that people with disabilities often have greater competing demands on their income. Higher medical expenses and the need for specialty items like adaptive equipment mean that an equal increase in income is less effective at alleviating poverty among people with disabilities than those who do not have a disability.
Physical Access, Built Environment, and Mobility
Areas and neighborhoods where residents are not serviced by conventional grocery stores are known as food deserts. This is a prevailing and expanding problem, especially in urban spaces, that leads to the inability to physically access grocery stores for many people. Those who live in food deserts are often forced to rely on convenience stores and gas stations, where food is more expensive and rarely nutritionally appropriate. The impacts of food deserts are particularly damaging when coupled with the existing challenges of grocery shopping for people with disabilities, especially for those with physical disabilities that impact mobility. The built environment of urban and suburban areas is seldom designed with disability in mind, and regular transportation for grocery shopping can be difficult for many people with disabilities. Public transportation is frequently unsuitable and not accommodating to disability, even after ADA compliance is met. Grocery stores can also be difficult to traverse, with doors and entryways that are challenging to use and aisles that are too high for many people to access. These issues combined can make grocery shopping a lengthy and arduous process, which limits many people to shopping far less often than they would prefer. This makes purchasing and storing perishable foods, which are usually healthier, much more difficult. Shopping infrequently also means buying more groceries each trip, which is more taxing economically and makes transporting groceries an even greater challenge.
For people with physical and cognitive disabilities, food preparation and cooking can be a significant enough inconvenience to cause some people to rely solely on prepared foods, such as fast food or frozen dinners. These types of foods are usually less healthy than meals cooked at home with whole ingredients and can cause a greater vulnerability to health complications. Many people are also unable to dedicate time to cooking, and the expenses necessary to modify a home kitchen for use by a person with a physical disability can be prohibitive.
Increasing access to nutritionally appropriate foods for people with disabilities is a multifaceted issue that involves poverty, mobility, transportation, and both public and private built infrastructure. Economic development addresses the most pressing of these hurtles, and it can do more to improve the food security status of people with disabilities than just making groceries more affordable. With a consistently higher income or access to greater monetary resources, many people can more easily afford devices or equipment they might need to improve their mobility and reduce barriers to cooking or shopping. Improved economic resources can also lower the financial burden of public or private transportation and grocery delivery services.
Pooled Medicaid Payback and Master Trusts offer people with disabilities a way to improve their food security status and reduce their likelihood of experiencing hunger without affecting their social security or Medicaid benefits. Depending on the type of Social Security benefits that a beneficiary receives, trusts can be used to either purchase foodstuffs directly, or lower the demands on beneficiaries’ other benefits so that they can be used to purchase food and other resources more easily. These benefits of financial resources like trust accounts make them a very effective tool for alleviating food insecurity and improving overall quality of life among people with disabilities.