New data shows hunger is a ‘really big issue’ for LGBTQ+ people in state, region
Since the pandemic, Gather, a food pantry in Portsmouth, has expanded its efforts to meet demand. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)
One population of Granite Staters experiences “severe” food insecurity and insufficiency, according to experts – but their invisibility means that few efforts exist to help them.
In New Hampshire, the most recent data from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy reveals 29 percent of LGBTQ+ individuals face food insecurity, and 28 percent have an annual income below $24,000.
Furthermore, during the average week, 13 percent of gay, lesbian, and non-heterosexual New Englanders did not have enough food to eat.
That’s according to a study led in part by professors at the University of New Hampshire that published in December. The study is one of the first of its kind to break down New England food insecurity by sexuality, gender identity, and race.
LGBTQ+ individuals make up 4.7 percent of the New Hampshire population, and the state is ranked 10th for its LGBTQ+ population size when compared to other states and the District of Columbia. Despite this, research on poverty and food insecurity amongst LGBTQ+ people is limited, especially when it comes to state-level data.
“This is a really big issue that’s getting very little attention,” said Ike Leslie, co-author of the study and extension assistant professor of community development at the University of Vermont.
Leslie said stereotypes and stigma may have prevented research on this topic in the past.
“I think there’s a general stereotype that LGBTQ+ people don’t make less money or maybe even make more money,” said Leslie. “But the numbers don’t bear out that way.”
Transgender individuals experience food insufficiency at some of the highest levels, according to the study.
“When we examined food insufficiency by gender identity, 20 percent, or about 1 in 5, transgender New Englanders experienced food insufficiency in the past week … which is twice the rate of cisgender women and three times the rate of cisgender men,” said Analena Bruce, a co-author of the study and assistant professor at the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.
Food insufficiency means a person did not have enough to eat in the past seven days, making it a more severe measure than food insecurity. Food insecurity, as defined by the USDA, is a lack of consistent access to enough food.
‘It’s shocking information’
The study has left those on the front lines of the issue grappling for solutions.
“(It’s) sort of shocking information,” said Seacoast Outright Executive Director Hershey Hirschkop.
Hirshkop said that while Outright does not offer food insecurity support, it does on occasion perform “informal casework,” steering youth in need to outside resources, like Gather, a food pantry in Portsmouth.
The data reflecting LGBTQ+ food insecurity was also new to Anne Hayes, executive director of Gather.
“I have to say, I don’t know how I would approach (it),” she said.
Hayes emphasized she was highly interested in finding out what Gather could do to bridge the gap in access. Since the pandemic, she said, Gather has significantly expanded its efforts to meet demand. Gather’s most recent figures show that use of services is up 30 percent from last year.
One way Hayes has tried to meet the increased need is through targeted assistance. On the Seacoast, Gather runs a market once a month with the Indonesian Community Connect in Somersworth, to better address the needs of the area’s Indonesian population. Gather also has specific efforts to target seniors, who experience higher levels of food insecurity.
“I think I would take a similar approach (to address LGBTQ+ food insecurity) and say, ‘OK, so who works with this population directly?’” she said. “And how can we work with them to identify people?”
In June, Gather partnered with Aids Response Seacoast, sharing their resources at Gather’s community market and providing dry goods for the organization to distribute.
Understanding the problem
Leslie and Bruce said there are several reasons why LGBTQ+ individuals might face food insecurity or insufficiency, though more research is needed.
Bruce hypothesized that the community’s experiences with discrimination and homelessness amplify food insecurity.
“They’re more likely to experience lower wages, based on subtle forms of discrimination,” she said. “And that can impact their risk of facing financial insecurity and poverty, which of course is the most direct structural cause of experiencing food insecurity.”
However, these factors alone do not explain the food insufficiency and insecurity experienced by LGBTQ+ New Englanders. The study found that even controlling for income, disparities remained.
“One really interesting thing about our study is that we controlled for income quantitatively,” they said. “So basically, that means we were able to hold income constant, and then see if there were still disparities between LGBTQ+ people and cisgender heterosexual people. And we found that even after holding income constant, those disparities persist.”
Leslie said it’s also important to understand that racial discrimination plays a role in experiences with food insecurity. LGBTQ+ people of color have the highest rates because of the interactions between gender, race, and sexuality.
How can communities help?
Experts still need to do more research to understand how best to address food insecurity among LGBTQ+ people. In their paper, Bruce and Leslie conclude that tackling this issue ultimately requires policy intervention and addressing systemic causes, like poverty.
However, there are still steps community stakeholders can consider right now. One issue Leslie pointed to was a lack of secular food pantries.
In many towns, a church food pantry is the only local food bank available. While these groups may not be discriminatory themselves, historic discrimination by the church or an individual’s personal trauma might prevent them from accessing this form of food assistance.
Of 191 food pantries and soup kitchens listed in a 2019 New Hampshire directory of organizations participating in the federal emergency food assistance program, 103 are explicitly religious or have religious associations.
“We know about the continued historic discrimination against LGBTQ+ people by different sects of the church,” Leslie said. “So presumably LGBTQ+ folks would feel less welcome and safe in church spaces where emergency food is provided.”
In addition to religious affiliation, the practice of asking for identification or personal information can be another barrier to access for LGBTQ+ individuals. For those worried about privacy, revealing personal information can be uncomfortable or scary.
“This is an issue for a lot of folks, but especially for trans folks who may not have identification that matches their gender identity,” said Leslie.
Leslie suggested food banks should also consider partnering with local LGBTQ+ organizations to better target local communities or hold LGBTQ-specific events.
Ariel Hayes at the NH Youth Success Project, an organization of advocates who have experienced youth homelessness, emphasized that creating an affirming environment is critical to reaching those in need.
“Especially in homeless services spaces where folks of color and LGBTQ+ folks are over-represented, it’s important that there’s a sense of belonging and that people working in that field represent the identities of the people accessing services,” she said.
New Hampshire currently has no LGBTQ-specific shelters or food pantries.
“If (queer youth) don’t feel safe and affirmed in a space then that space is essentially not accessible,” Hayes said.
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