Exploring Food Security in Southeast Ohio

Food insecurity, defined by the USDA as “…a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life,” is a national problem. More than 10 percent of U.S. households were food insecure as 2019, before the current pandemic and related recession. But food insecurity is not uniformly distributed across the country. Ohio had the third-highest share of households experiencing “very low food security” among all U.S. states from 2012 to 2014. Southeast Ohio, in Ohio’s rural Appalachian region, has particularly high rates of food insecurity.

We are exploring the role of healthy food access on food insecurity in and around Athens County in Southeast Ohio. This work is being done in partnership with three local organizations – ACENet, Community Food Initiatives, and Rural Action – that provide area residents with locally-grown fresh produce via market-based and donation-based programs. Along with evaluating the programs themselves, our rich longitudinal survey data, collected from 841 households in the region at three timepoints in 2020 and 2021, are allowing us to explore a variety of interesting and important questions.

Figure 1 shows the food security status of households who took part in our survey. Among this sample, close to a quarter of households experienced some degree of food insecurity in June 2020 which greatly exceeds the national average. Existing literature suggests a reciprocal relationship between food insecurity and health. This is corroborated by our study. Approximately 1 in 6 (16%) survey respondents perceived their health to be ‘fair’ or ‘poor’. As we can observe in Figure 2, self-perceived health status is lower among individuals from households experiencing food insecurity.

Diet quality – which is enhanced by the consumption of healthy foods, like fresh produce – has been put forth as an important factor in the food security-health relationship. Poor access to (e.g., geographic proximity) and affordability of nutritious foods are considered two possible factors for the poorer diet quality observed among those in food insecure households. Food sourcing – that is, where people shop for or access food – can influence diet quality. Figure 3 shows primary food shopping location of our survey respondents by food security status. People in households experiencing very low food security shop more frequently at discount stores (11% vs 5%) and less frequently at grocery stores (16% vs 21%) than their fully-secure counterparts. Given what is known about the more nutritious stock of foods in grocery stores relative to many other store types, these food sourcing differences may have bearing on the diet and health of food insecure households in Southeast Ohio. Healthy food access initiatives, such as those implemented by our study partners, may help to mitigate this complex set of issues among residents. Future research by our team will explore these and other questions in more depth.

Figure 1: Food Security Status among a Convenience Sample in Southeast Ohio (June 2020)


Figure 2: Self-perceived Health Status by Food Security Status (June 2020)


Figure 3: Primary Food Shopping Location by Food Security Status (June 2020)

Note: Grocery Store (e.g. New Market), Convenience Store (e.g. Ron’s Auto and Convenience Store), Discount Store (e.g. Save A Lot), Superstores (e.g. Kroger), Farmers Market (e.g. O’Bleness Hospital [Farmers Market])


Lei Xu (PhD Student), Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University

Dr. Zoë Plakias (Assistant Professor), Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, The Ohio State University

Dr. Jennifer Garner (Assistant Professor), Food and Nutrition Policy at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University


Research Team (alphabetically): Shahwar Ali (MPA Student), Joe Barbaree (Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager, Rural Action), Patrick Creedon (Research Associate, OSU), Jennifer Garner (PI; Assistant Professor, OSU), Andrew Hanks (Assistant Professor, OSU), Susie Huser (Donation Station Program Director, Community Food Initiatives) Kathleen Krzyzanowski Guerra (PhD Student, OSU), Zoë Plakias (Assistant Professor, OSU), Tom Redfern (Sustainable Agriculture Program Director, Rural Action), and Lei Xu (PhD Student, OSU).

This research was supported by a grant from The Ohio State University’s Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT), a Discovery Themes program (learn more at discovery.osu.edu/infact); a grant from the Office of Outreach and Engagement at The Ohio State University; Award Number UL1TR002733 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (#5591); and, the Clinical Research Center/Center for Clinical Research Management of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, Ohio.


[USDA] USDA Economic Research Service. (2019a). Definitions of Food Security. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx

Gundersen, C., Engelhard, E., & Waxman, E. (2014). Map the meal gap: Exploring food insecurity at the local level. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy36(3), 373-386. https://doi.org/10.1093/aepp/ppu018

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