It is evident that a great paradox exists within the American food and health industry. How can it be that over 70% of the population is considered to be overweight whilst simultaneously 1 in 6 people in the richest country in the world face hunger on a daily basis. This equates to 49 million people across 50 states that struggle to put food on the table (Figure 1). Although the US is plentiful and the world’s largest exporter of food, millions of individual Americans do not get enough to eat.
The USDA defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. In a country as developed as America, it is expected that people should have enough money to obtain the food they would like to eat that fulfills their nutritional needs and that people have the ability to access these diverse food sources. This is not the case. America is always seen as a country of consumption, and a land of plenty, yet people are still going without food, however it is not the lack of food that is the problem. Not only does the U.S. produce a far greater amount of food than it actually needs, it is possible it could grow much more. Plus, waste is a big issue. 40% of food is chucked away in the US every year from farm to fork, which equates to about $165 billion worth. All of this uneaten food could feed 25 million Americans.
Additionally, there are factors that can affect the rate of food insecurity within households and those with children were, in 2016, reported to have a significantly higher rate of 20.6% against the 12.3% of those households without, making them much more vulnerable. Whilst more than 1 in 5 children are at risk of hunger, among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3. Clearly there’s a discrepancy between races as to who is the subject to the higher proportion of food insecurity; an indicator of food injustice among the population.
In America, there is a big responsibility placed in the hands of charities to support those in positions of food poverty, despite promises from every president from Nixon through to Obama to address this national scandal. Three major federal programmes have been developed to address food insecurity in America, with the flagship being the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides benefits on a monthly basis that allow them to purchase food at participating stores. 1 in 7 people are enrolled in SNAP, with close to 70% of the participants being families with children. The average SNAP recipient received about $127 a month (or about $4.23 a day) in 2015, which even though it goes somehow to helping those in need of aid, it does not provide a family with enough support and stability to be secure.
There is also the National School Lunch Program that grants subsidies to over 100,000 schools and societies to assist in providing regular nutritious lunches to approximately 30 million children, 64% of which are provided at no cost to the child with a further 8% being offered at a discount rate.
The third of the main federal programmes is the supports around 8.3 million individuals each month and provides food to those with specific nutritional requirements; children below the age of 5 and pregnant women for example. It is called the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
In 2014, 61% of households that were considered food insecure were beneficiaries of at least one of these three federal food support programmes. These programmes target those most vulnerable to food security problems, and without them these people would be a lot worse off (Figure 3).
In many small towns across America, the people struggling with issues of food insecurity live within communities where food deserts are present. The USDA defines a food desert as a geographic area without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Without supermarkets and grocery stores nearby and easily accessible, the only establishments available to these communities are convenience shops and fast food restaurants which rarely offer the ideal combination of healthy and affordable food choices. New proposals need to be launched in order to not only incentivise supermarkets to locate within these food deserts but to also expand the range of healthy options in smaller independent stores. An average family of four dealing with such insecurity may need up to an extra 34 meals a month solely because they do not have the money to provide for themselves. The assistance provided by food stamps can sometimes equate to the buying power of $3 a day, which heavily limits the options available to families, and will often lead to a sub-standard diet.
Feeding America is one of the many charitable organisations that aim to help households in need of nutritional support. When 84% of households that are connected with Feeding America state they buy the cheapest food instead of the healthy option, simply as it puts food in their family’s stomachs, it shows how even people living in situations of high food insecurity can overweight and unhealthy. Even if families become better educated and more incentivised to purchase healthier foods, a serious lack of access to these products in communities across America presents a major barrier. Similarly, there should be application of alternative strategies that make the most of mobile food delivery like bulk buying healthy food that gets delivered to public places like schools or libraries.
There is no definitive way to prevent hunger and it is a vital issue that will continue to trouble America and the rest of the world. There are ways to attempt to fight it though that require the contribution of an extensive range of private, governmental, and public health players. Food insecurity is about education, poverty, and public health, and to end it requires innovation, investment and resources.
In 21st Century America no one should have to feel insecure about where their next meal is coming from, yet millions of people struggle with it every single day.