Food Insecurity in America
by Temerity Forthright
The third largest food producer in the world still struggles with feeding its own people. This country ranks third in terms of food production despite having a much smaller agricultural work force than the top two food producing countries. It has less than 10 percent of the world’s arable land, but is the world’s largest exporter of food. This same country produces the highest food yield per acre in the world. Yet, it has trouble getting food to hungry children within its own borders.
You have, of course, figured out that this country is the United States.
The USDA Economic Research Service reports that “the defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.”
On September 7, 2016, the USDA Economic Research Service hosted a webinar on “Household Food Security in the United States in 2015.” This annual report provided an overview on the prevalence and severity of food insecurity in the U.S. in 2015.
That USDA report found that 14 percent of American households, or 17.4 million families, were “food insecure” in 2014. In 2015, however, that number of households dropped to 12.7 percent. The “very low food security” rate dropped from 5.6 percent in 2014 to 5 percent (or 6.3 million) in 2015.
In other words, although some improvements are being made, millions of American children still go to bed hungry.
Another aspect of the report identified food insecurity rates based on the types of households. It comes as no surprise that the households with the highest food insecurity rates are headed by single women with children.
Three major Federal programs have been established to combat hunger: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
In a nutritional dichotomy, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the past 30 years the obesity rate has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. In 2012, more than one-third of all children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
According to a 2013 CDC report, Arkansas tied with Kentucky for the highest percentage of high school students who were obese (17 percent). Missouri tied with Mississippi with 15 percent of high school students who were obese. Find your state: Childhood Obesity Map
So why does the U.S. have such a high rate of food insecurity and childhood obesity?
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a study in September 2012 suggesting that there is a correlation between food insecurity and obesity. The study suggests this is more prevalent among low-income populations because of reliance on low-cost, high-energy foods which can lead to increased caloric intake. High calorie and high fat foods are usually less expensive. The study goes on to proffer that over eating occurs when food availability varies, creating a cycle of food depravation and overeating.
Numerous other published studies have found a similar paradox between food insecurity and childhood obesity. The Institute of Medicine published two articles (2006 and 2013) proposing that low-income families are disproportionally exposed to more obesity-promoting food products through marketing and advertising.
In addition, these children may not have access to physical activity opportunities and organized sports because of low income, neighborhood crime, lack of transportation, or limited access to natural spaces, such as parks.
The solutions to ending food insecurity in the U.S. are as numerous as the public and private organizations that offer assistance. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) alone currently runs 15 different nutritional assistance programs, each with different eligibility requirements and application procedures. The USDA spends over $70 million per year on just one of those programs – SNAP (food stamps).
The Center for American Progress, for example, proposes a single streamlined program with a simple eligibility criteria. An abstract published in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine suggests that this is a human rights issue. It proposes adopting a human rights framework to solve the problem of food insecurity through government accountability and transparency. Private hunger-relief organization, such as Feeding America, rely on private donations, volunteers, and civic partnerships.
Is there a simple answer to ending food insecurity in America? Is there a single program that can reduce food insecurity?
Is it solely the government’s responsibility to end food insecurity in the U.S. or is there a place at the table for faith-based and community-based organizations to provide assistance?
I don’t have the answers. I’m just posing the questions.
But this is America. Our children should not go to bed hungry.