What Does 'Food Insecurity' Mean? Facts About Hunger In America And How You Can Help This Thanksgiving

food insecurity
The face of hunger in America is the face of those affected by unemployment, declining salaries, increasing global competition, and rising food prices. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

“The face of hunger in America has changed so dramatically over the last several years,” said Rachel Ray, popular food show host, during a recent TimesTalk discussion. “Now everybody knows someone who is hungry or at risk of going hungry. Now we all have friends, neighbors, family members, and I guess that’s the weird kind of very dark silver lining. Now you can make everyone have the conversation because sadly we really know what that face is now.” During the same discussion, celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio noted, “We’re in the greatest country ever and we have to talk about hunger.”

Justifiably, the very thought of hunger in America triggers intense emotion. In some cases, hunger — or as it is commonly phrased today, food insecurity — may arise from exceedingly poor choices and a lack of personal responsibility. However, unemployment, declining salaries, increasing global competition, and rising prices mean food insecurity has now begun to affect many unexpected people, including those who have and are continuing to work hard. To begin any conversation about food and hunger, it is necessary to sort out some basic facts.

Food Insecurity And Hunger

Food insecurity, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), means “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Importantly, food insecurity is more common in large cities and rural areas than in either suburban or exurban areas. At least some time during 2013, an estimated 14.3 percent of American households were food insecure, while the prevalence of very low food security was 5.6 percent. Who suffers from food insecurity? According to the USDA, it’s more likely among households with incomes near or below the Federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, and black- and Hispanic-headed households.

However, according to Forbes contributor Paul Roderick Gregory, food insecurity is not the same as hunger.

“If the USDA measured physical hunger (as does the United Nations)…America would be virtually hunger free,” wrote Gregory in a recent article since, by his count, somewhere between two percent and a fraction of one percent of Americans report skipping meals, having hungry children or children who did not eat at all during a whole day.

By comparison, the USDA estimates the number of those who experienced during 2013 instances of very low food security — where food intake is reduced and normal eating patterns are disrupted at times during the year as just “0.9 percent of households with children (360,000 households).” Further, Gregory noted, “food insecure families can cut meal sizes, substitute cheaper foods, or forego balanced meals without suffering physical hunger. According to this standard, most of us were food insecure at some point during our lives.”

Hunger And Obesity

Point taken. However, in many cases foregoing balanced meals leads to health problems over the long haul. “Food-related diseases — diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, others — cost our health care system $167 billion a year,” Colicchio noted. In fact, over the past 20 years, diabetes and coronary heart disease have risen along with obesity rates, all of which contribute to economic and social problems.

“Hunger and obesity are different sides of the same coin,” Colicchio said. “It’s really a nutrition problem. Calories are cheap, nutrition’s expensive.” In other words, people often purchase less-healthy food simply because it is more affordable than the healthy good stuff. While some blame declining incomes for such choices, others, including Colicchio, say the high price tag on quality and healthy food has more to do with politics.

“We subsidize our agricultural system to the tune of $25 billion a year; 85 percent of that goes to corn, wheat, soy, and cotton, 15 percent of that goes to dairy and livestock,” Colicchio said. “And one percent goes to specialty crops, otherwise known as fruits and vegetables. One percent!” American tax dollars, then, primarily support monoculture agribusinesses, which are part of the processed food system. Instead, Colicchio believes, more money could be going to small, family or independent farms which offer us the vegetables and fruits that should constitute, by nutritional guidelines, at least five (and up to 13) daily portions of our total dietary intake.

Meanwhile, the facts remain. Those of us who aren’t food insecure know all too well the high price of food today. Today, a single trip to the supermarket can be staggering. Most of us also understand how job loss combined with high food prices might easily lead to poor nutrition, no matter how intelligent our grocery choices. Many people, then, have great sympathy for those trying to stretch a budget to include more healthy food. And in the season of plenty, there are many ways to give to those who lack the means to buy good food.

What You Can Do Now

Feeding America’s Find Your Local Food Bank search engine allows you to fill in a zip code (or state name) to locate a donation center at which you can offer food, your time, or money, whatever you prefer. Nothing feels better than direct and immediate action. Another extremely useful (and possibly the least expensive) way to contribute would be getting involved in a supermarket gleaning program.

According to the USDA, 27 percent of all the food produced each year is lost at the retail, consumer, and food service levels. In other words, nationwide, about 263,013,699 pounds of food  gets thrown out every single day just because it is past its sell-by date or bruised. In short, much of the food that goes to waste is perfectly edible. While you may not own a supermarket or restaurant, these establishments need volunteers willing to transport excess food to the hungry or a specific donation center. One non-profit, Society of St. Andrew, organizes some gleaning programs — including collecting food directly from farmers’ fields — but it also may be possible to establish a volunteer shift with a local market or restaurant on your important. What’s important to remember before you talk to a willing business is that participants are protected from liability lawsuits while also receiving tax benefits.

Though it requires transportation costs, gleaning can be a wonderful way to give for those without a lot of money. And you might make a new friend in the process.

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