The hollow face of hunger was given a euphemistic face-lift in the 20th century with the term “food insecurity”. Even so, hunger has too long been on the periphery in the discussion about food culture, but this is beginning to change. It started creeping into the wider discussion as the global recession put more people at risk for hunger, and food pantries saw their donations decrease and their requests for assistance increase. According to the World Health Organization “food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences. In many countries, health problems related to dietary excess are an ever increasing threat.”
In the United States, food insecurity is becoming a major economic issue. According to the annual USDA report, Household Food Security in the United States, “14.6 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.” They also found that “prevalence rates of food insecurity and very low food security were up from 11.1 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, in 2007, and were the highest recorded since 1995, when the first national food security survey was conducted. Fifty-five percent of all food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs during the month prior to the 2008 survey.”
More recently, according to The Wall Street Journal “nearly a year and a half into the economic recovery, some 43.6 million Americans continued to rely on food stamps in November . More than 14% of the population drew food stamps in November to purchase groceries as high unemployment and muted wage growth crimped budgets. The number of recipients was up 0.9% from October, according to the new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Compared to a year ago, the number of people receiving food stamps was up 14.2%.”
As if being hungry wasn’t bad enough, according to the New York Times, “a range of studies has shown that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods. This is the problem of “food deserts” — a lack of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas.”
Adding further insult to injury, The Chicago Sun-Times reports, “Major manufacturers of consumer goods are again coping with rising commodity costs by cutting back on portion sizes, chipping away a few ounces here and taking out a few slices there rather than ask the customer to pay more. But the net effect is just as costly. Companies often attempt to “ease” a downsizing in — increasing the indent on the bottom of a container of ice cream; decreasing the thickness of plastic wrap. Consumers respond much less negatively to a portion reduction than a price hike, companies contend. Consumer advocates counter that’s because consumers are less likely to notice a stealthy downsizing. And they do complain, online and to the companies.”
New efforts have been made recently to combat food insecurity, to widen the availability of healthy food and promote good eating habits among the most impoverished Americans. These social and economic efforts often attempt to focus on the connection between food and health related issues of childhood obesity and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “In the last 2 decades, type 2 diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) has been reported among U.S. children and adolescents with increasing frequency. The epidemics of obesity and the low level of physical activity among young people, as well as exposure to diabetes in utero, may be major contributors to the increase in type 2 diabetes during childhood and adolescence.”
First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity the centerpiece of her agenda. And Walmart the nation’s largest grocer, is planning to “reformulate thousands of products to make them healthier and push its suppliers to do the same, joining first lady Michelle Obama’s effort to combat childhood obesity.”
And here’s where it gets political. Rich liberal social safety net Democrats face off against rich conservative small government, assistance cutting Republicans, and feeding the hungry becomes a campaign issue and nothing is accomplished. For an example of the recent political mudslinging, Courier Post Online columnist writes, Michelle Obama “has transformed the East Wing of the White House into Big Nanny’s new Central Command headquarters. The biggest threats to Mrs. Obama’s 70-point plan for national fitness: parental authority and sound science. Mrs. O’s real interest isn’t in nurturing nursing moms or slimming down kids’ waistlines. It’s in boosting government and public union payrolls, along with beefing up FCC and FTC regulators’ duties.” When did charity, compassion and feeding the hungry become a conspiracy?
“Protecting the poor is not a partisan issue,” Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America. Proposed federal budget cuts “include cuts to programs that serve low-income families. As a result, many of the people served by Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, are likely to experience increased hardship.”
Let’s take a moment to step outside of the political debate on this “issue” and look at the realistic, ground floor experience of being broke and hungry. In case you are fortunate enough to have never faced the sort of economic hardship faced by millions of Americans, another blogger, Elisha, (at elfstaranymore.tumblr.com) can break it down for you. “First, you plan your protein. This is generally the most expensive part of your diet, and also the part which makes you feel like you have actually eaten a meal. Your first priority as a poor person is to get enough food to not be hungry, and proteins and yes, fats, are highly desirable for that. This tends to be fatty food like chicken thighs, hot dogs, fatty ground beef, peanut butter, eggs, and highly processed ‘cheese food.’ The second part of the food budget “goes toward breads and starches because those are digested more quickly than proteins and thus sate your hunger quickly in the short-term, while proteins keep you feeling full longer. So once you’ve got your proteins, you then go for potatoes, rice, breads, cereals, and pastas. It is worth noting that in all instances white is cheaper than whole-grain. Next, you get things that will allow you to put your base ingredients together as meals. This is where vegetables first start to enter the picture, particularly cheap flavor-adding vegetables such as onions and celery. But this is also where you buy butter, milk, cooking oils, salt, jelly, Hamburger Helper and Shake n Bake. Don’t underestimate the value of those! An extra dollar to turn a flavorless wad of beef into a satisfying meal is an extremely good choice.”
At this point in her post, Elisha takes a turn for what might be called ‘radical realism’. She voices a truth about how food is greater than a combination of nutritious elements. Even though food is tied to health, it is also tied to happiness and self esteem. “…Sometimes when you’re poor, eating for entertainment is the only entertainment you can afford. If a dollar box of Twinkies makes you feel happy when the rest of your life is no fun, that is a dollar well spent. Sometimes you need to have some small luxuries to feel human, and personally, my need to feel human is more important than my need for broccoli.”
These would be the eating habits that Mrs. Obama, and many other policy makers, are attempting to change. And for those who are distressed at the lack of fruits and vegetables in this realistic diet, Elisha has a logical point for them too. “Produce spoils quickly and is often an enormous waste of money, and you can’t afford to be spending money on food you will only throw in the trash. So when you are poor, you have to be very, very careful what vegetables you buy.”
Elishamakes several more excellent points from a perspective seldom heard in this debate, someone with a personal experience dealing with hunger. The most valuable point she makes is that the upper classes often use an offensively condescending tone to those who are hungry and in need. “I grew up on food stamps and quite frankly by about age 7 I was already sick of every purchase my family made being scrutinized. Oh you bought ice cream? But those two dollars could’ve been spent on VEGETABLES! See, because you don’t deserve ice cream, not even $2 generic ice cream, because you’re poor. You deserve to be told what to buy by richer people, because richer = smarter and we know what’s best for you.” Think of that the next time you’re tempted to judge another person at the checkout counter.
For any program, initiative or assistance to actually help people, it must take into account their needs, as well as their wishes. Remember the World Health Organization includes in its definition of food security “both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” A prescriptive approach will likely fail in this situation. We need to include the beneficiaries of these efforts in the planning stages in order to make any progress on improving their situations. It may seem like an odd notion to people at the top levels of policy making, to ask the poor for input. But I think asking the people most dependent on these assistance programs what sort of help they most need might improve the effectiveness of the programs, and could even reduce dependence over time. Maybe they need a farmer’s market more than a Whole Foods or a Walmart in their neighborhood. Shouldn’t we ask them?
NPR featured one activist and urban resident of a L.A. food desert, Olga Perez, who suggests that something as simple as available transportation can help make a difference. When the nearest supermarket is three miles away, Perez “can buy only what she can carry back home in her arms. Instead of a head of lettuce, she buys a small bag. She can’t buy more than a few cans, and she can manage only half a gallon of milk. Now, with help from a community group called LA Voice PICO, Perez and some of her neighbors are speaking out and lobbying politicians to help them get more healthful food options.
“They recently won a small victory when Superior grocery store district manager Marco Sosa brought back free shuttle van rides for customers, something he dropped last year because of cost. Perez is glad for the shuttle but says that’s just a partial solution. Her goal is to get a real supermarket in Ramona Gardens. She says her mother’s early death from diabetes still haunts her, and she wants something better for herself, her family and her neighbors: fresh, organic foods, like the rest of L.A. “It doesn’t matter if we live in a low-income area,” says Perez. “We all deserve to eat the fresh fruits that nature provided for us. We shouldn’t be divided.”
New efforts and new ideas to address the hunger problem are emerging. NPR covered an effort that has the dual benefit of feeding the hungry while reducing food waste. “On U.S. farms, gleaning is making a comeback, as a national anti-hunger organization has turned to the ancient practice to help feed the poor. And it also gives farmers a way to use produce that would otherwise be wasted.” Similarly, the North Berkeley Harvest, featured in the New York Times is “part of a small but expanding movement of backyard urban gleaners — they might be called fruit philanthropists — who voluntarily harvest surplus fruit and then donate it to food banks, centers for the elderly and other nonprofit organizations.”
The New York Times also detailed an partnership in California where the “California Association of Food Banks has struck deals with farms and packers across the state, where, on behalf of its members, it collects truckloads of fruits and vegetables that are too small, ripe or misshapen for supermarkets to sell.”
More innovative ideas are still needed, however, because as demand for assistance continues to rise, and government funds are reduced, a bigger problem is looming. According to NPR “The United Nations says food prices hit a record high last month. The UN’s food agency says prices of sugar, wheat and other staples have risen for seven straight months, and are likely to continue going up. Frustration over food prices has helped fuel the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.” If there was ever a good time to use the cliché, a “perfect storm,” I think it has arrived.