In a nation of plenty, why do 1 out of 8 Americans have uncertain or limited access to food?
Going hungry in America is not what most would expect. Hunger might mean sacrificing nutritious food for inexpensive, unhealthy options. It might mean periodic disruption to normal eating patterns. And increasingly such hunger occurs among white families, in the suburbs, and among obese people. In other words, any community can be affected; and in 2017, the USDA reported 12.3% of American households are food insecure. Hunger today is a result of tradeoffs between food and other costs—such as health care, bills, and education.
However, hunger does not accurately depict food insecurity in America. Hunger is a prolonged, involuntary lack of food that can lead to personal or physical discomfort. Conversely, food insecure, coined in 2006 by the USDA, defines a household with limited or uncertain access to food. Food insecurity results from limited financial resources and makes it difficult to lead an active, healthy lifestyle. Further, food insecurity can be categorized either as low food insecurity (reduced quality of food, but not intake) or high food insecurity (both reduced quality and intake).
No matter the category given, food insecurity has serious effects. This is most evident in the need for 66% of Feeding America customer households to choose between medical care and food, according to a 2014 study. Considering many food insecure individuals have diabetes or high blood pressure, medical care can be critical. A study by the Bread for the World Institute in 2014 estimated hunger creates $160 billion in healthcare costs. This includes mental health problems, nutrition related issues, and hospitalizations among other potential costs.
Further, 13 million of food insecure individuals are children and 4.9 million are seniors: two critical groups whose bodies rely on proper nutrition. For example, the effects of hunger in children have been known to delay development, cause behavioral problems, and even increase the chances a child will repeat a grade.
One solution for food insecurity is federal food assistance programs. Indeed, 59% of food insecure households are part of at least one major federal food assistance program— but 25% of households do not qualify. The most well-known of these federal programs is SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP requires your gross income be at or below the poverty line by 130%, allowing for adjustments with family size. Still, the average amount per person is around $133.07 a month—or less than $1.50 per meal.
The desired solution though is the end of food insecurity in America. A major force behind this future is the domestic nonprofit, and hunger relief organization, Feeding America. Feeding America supports food banks, funds research, provides meal programs, mobilizes anti-hunger advocacy, and educates the public among other initiatives.
Overall, Feeding America and its partners served 1 out of 7 Americans in 2017. It was able to do so as it works together with 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries. Each affiliated food bank, a non-profit that stores food for smaller organizations, is evaluated according to industry practices and food safety laws. Additionally, all staff receive food safety training. These practices ensure all food is safe when distributed at the food pantries, which directly serve their communities.
Much of the food was higher quality too: around 1.3 billion pounds of nutritional food was delivered to food banks in 2017. Some food is food waste, in 2017 3.3 billion pounds were rescued from landfills and redistributed for consumption from partner companies, such as Starbucks. And all these small initiatives are directly helping communities, making food security an increasing possibility for the future.
TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.