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What Food Insecurity Means for LGBTQIA+ People in Middle and West Tennessee

Tennessee is home to approximately 225,000 LGBTQIA+ people, including approximately 30,800 people who identify as transgender. LGBTQIA+ Tennesseans are your neighbors, your family, your coworkers, and your community members. LGBTQIA+ Tennesseans deserve to be safe, respected, celebrated, and never have to worry about where their next meal may come from. 

LGBTQIA+ Tennesseans face an unsupportive legal system and a hostile political climate that results in disproportionate disadvantages across some of our most central social institutions, including work, family, education, healthcare, and access to food. Food relief institutions must recognize these barriers and fight to address them so all our neighbors in need have access to food.  

A recent study conducted by Southern Equality Research & Policy Center and Campus Pride found more than 50% of Tennesseans identifying as LGBTQIA+ qualify as “low-income,” earning less than $20,000 per year. As a point of comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that only 13% of the general population in TN is living in poverty. Poverty and food insecurity statistics for LGBTQIA+ people in Tennessee are worse than the nation at large, with Feeding America reporting that only 22% of LGBTQIA+ people across the country face food insecurity compared to the >50% in Tennessee.  

A litany of issues, such as discriminatory healthcare are the root of higher food insecurity rates. Tennessee does not have laws that guarantee LGBTQIA+ people access to or protect LGBTQIA+ people from discrimination in healthcare. Our state’s Medicaid policy and state employee health insurance policy explicitly exclude coverage for gender-affirming care. The state has also made it legal for private health insurance companies to discriminate on the same basis. This will drastically increase out-of-pocket costs for LGBTQIA+ people who need healthcare, which puts them at higher risk of poverty, and, also, creates a bleak scenario for those who are unable to afford their medical bills. 50% of the LGBTQIA+ participants in the study reported that their physical health was poor, and 41% reported that they were living with a disability or chronic illness. As we know, access to fresh, healthy, and nutritious food is a necessity for those with disabilities and chronic illnesses – and a lack of access can heighten the impacts of their health issues. 

Tennessee has a higher rural LGBTQIA+ population  with 55.4% of Tennessee’s LGBTQIA+ residents living  outside of Tennessee’s major urban centers of Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. Rural Health Info reports that those living in rural areas are more likely to live in a food desert, be limited by financial constraints, have transportation challenges, and rely on more expensive and less nutritious food. Living in rural communities and identifying as LGBTQIA+ predisposes a person to an increased risk of food insecurity.  

Finally, LGBTQIA+ youth faced increased rates of bullying in schools. Anti-LGBTQIA+ bullying creates a hostile environment, causing most respondents in the study to feel unsafe at school. More than 75% of study respondents reported feeling unsafe due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not feeling safe at school has a direct impact on attendance numbers, which, in turn, impacts a child’s ability to access food. Free and reduced meals at school cafeterias are a primary source of food for thousands of students in Middle and West Tennessee – meals that are lost when students don’t attend school.  When students don’t come to class, grades suffer, and an increased strain is put on their families to provide food.  

This Pride Month it is important to remember that in Tennessee our LGBTQIA+ face an increased challenge in overcoming food insecurity. Second Harvest recognizes that all our neighbors facing food insecurity deserve relief – regardless of their identity, expression, or orientation We believe in Food for ALL. 

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