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The effect of food insecurity on mental health: Panel evidence from rural Zambia


  • Cole, Steven M.
  • Tembo, Gelson


A growing number of studies show support for a positive association between food insecurity and poor mental health in developing countries. Few of these studies, however, explore the relationship statistically employing longitudinal data. This study combines ethnography with randomly sampled household-level panel data (two waves) collected in 2009 to examine the association between food insecurity and mental health in rural Zambia. Mental health was measured using the Self-Reporting Questionnaire and food insecurity was assessed utilizing a modified 7-item scale based on local coping strategies used during food shortages. A multilevel linear regression model was employed with repeated measures nested within individuals (N = 280 observations) living in 81 households nested within 16 villages. Regression results confirm the postulated positive association between poor mental health and food insecurity. Food insecurity during the dry season, the time of year in rural Zambia when many households are typically food secure, had a subsequent greater effect on mental health than food insecurity during the rainy season. The difference in the effect was statistically significant at the five-percent level. In a country where mental health care resources are severely lacking, policy and applied efforts aimed at improving access to key agricultural resources, thereby increasing agricultural output, could potentially produce beneficial mental health outcomes.

Suggested Citation

  • Cole, Steven M. & Tembo, Gelson, 2011. "The effect of food insecurity on mental health: Panel evidence from rural Zambia," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 73(7), pages 1071-1079.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:73:y:2011:i:7:p:1071-1079 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.07.012

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Atuoye, Kilian Nasung & Luginaah, Isaac, 2017. "Food as a social determinant of mental health among household heads in the Upper West Region of Ghana," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 180(C), pages 170-180.
    2. Tsai, Alexander C. & Bangsberg, David R. & Frongillo, Edward A. & Hunt, Peter W. & Muzoora, Conrad & Martin, Jeffrey N. & Weiser, Sheri D., 2012. "Food insecurity, depression and the modifying role of social support among people living with HIV/AIDS in rural Uganda," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 74(12), pages 2012-2019.
    3. Hjelm, Lisa & Handa, Sudhanshu & de Hoop, Jacobus & Palermo, Tia, 2017. "Poverty and perceived stress: Evidence from two unconditional cash transfer programs in Zambia," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 177(C), pages 110-117.
    4. Piperata, Barbara A. & Schmeer, Kammi K. & Rodrigues, Andres Herrera & Salazar Torres, Virgilio Mariano, 2016. "Food insecurity and maternal mental health in León, Nicaragua: Potential limitations on the moderating role of social support," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 171(C), pages 9-17.
    5. Shen, Yuying, 2014. "Community building and mental health in mid-life and older life: Evidence from China," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 107(C), pages 209-216.
    6. Tsai, Alexander C. & Tomlinson, Mark & Comulada, W. Scott & Rotheram-Borus, Mary Jane, 2016. "Food insufficiency, depression, and the modifying role of social support: Evidence from a population-based, prospective cohort of pregnant women in peri-urban South Africa," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 151(C), pages 69-77.
    7. Muzi Na & Alden L. Gross & Lee S. F. Wu & Bess L. Caswell & Sameera A. Talegawkar & Amanda C. Palmer, 2016. "Internal validity of the Food Access Survey Tool in assessing household food insecurity in rural Zambia," Food Security: The Science, Sociology and Economics of Food Production and Access to Food, Springer;The International Society for Plant Pathology, vol. 8(3), pages 679-688, June.
    8. Piperata, Barbara A. & Schmeer, Kammi K. & Hadley, Craig & Ritchie-Ewing, Genevieve, 2013. "Dietary inequalities of mother–child pairs in the rural Amazon: Evidence of maternal-child buffering?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 96(C), pages 183-191.

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    Zambia; Mental health; Food insecurity; Seasonality;


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