Are people in the United States getting enough to eat?
Unfortunately, even though the U.S. is bountiful and the world’s biggest individual exporter of food, millions of Americans actually are not.
Each year the Department of Agriculture runs a nationwide survey to determine how many people go hungry. The latest figures show almost 6 percent of households—about 18 million people—are consistently not getting enough to eat. Another 8 percent—30 million people—have occasional problems feeding themselves.
Altogether, about 14 percent of U.S. households—roughly 48 million people or one in seven Americans—go hungry at some point during the year, and not because they are trying to lose weight. This number actually underestimates the problem because the survey excludes the homeless and transients, groups that almost by definition lack enough food.
Given the size of the problem, you might think it’d be a prominent issue on the campaign trail this year.
Yet none of the presidential candidates discusses this issue, even as they attend endless breakfast meetings, lunch roundtables, and dinner fundraisers. It doesn’t seem to be on their minds, perhaps because they are surrounded by food. A Secret Service agent assigned to protect a candidate once jokingly told one of us the most dangerous part of the job was ensuring he didn’t die from overeating.
While the candidates, their staff and protectors are well-fed, the news is not as good for the rest of the country.
In other words, why do we have such a tough time ending hunger in America?
What Hunger Really Means
If you are like most people, you know what it is like to think yourself, “I’m hungry.” You have probably said as much to a friend or family member.
And your hunger is real. It is a feeling of emptiness caused by a lack of food.
But being hungry in the moment—maybe you skipped breakfast or missed lunch—is not the same as hunger. Hunger is not knowing if there is a next meal, which is quite different from being temporarily hungry.
The 48 million Americans who face hunger and food insecurity are found across our nation. Yet, poverty, lack of education, and state programs as well as infrastructure combine to concentrate hunger and food insecurity in the South and especially in Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Kentucky.
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, these food-insecure households respond to hunger and food insecurity in various ways. They eat a less varied diet, they participate in federal food assistance programs and they turn to emergency food programs including community pantries. Hungry families juggle expenses. They trade one kind of insecurity for another and forego payments for utilities in order to buy food.
Hunger has been with us for eons. Not so long ago, people suffered hunger because their crops failed, there were no animals to hunt, or there was a climate catastrophe. A drought, rains or rain that arrived at the wrong time were just some of the climate events that might cause hunger.
Defining Food Security
Food security is a simple concept. People who are “food secure” have enough to eat. People who are “food insecure” do not.
Not only are the numbers large, the Department of Agriculture survey shows the percentage of households experiencing food insecurity has climbed slightly since 1995. This is shocking since the overall U.S. economy has grown roughly 60 percent over the same period, indicating economic gains alone are not improving the lives of the most vulnerable.
The survey tracks hunger each December by asking if the following statements apply:
“We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.”
“The food that we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.”
“We couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.”
Using these questions and a few others, each household is classified as “food secure,” “low food security” or “very low food security.”
Does the U.S. Grow Enough Food?
Is the reason for such large numbers of food-insecure people that U.S. farmers are not growing enough?
Data from a special program that monitors food availability show the answer is no. For example, the U.S. produces about 200 pounds of grains like wheat, rice, and oats; 250 pounds of red meat and poultry; and 200 pounds of dairy products each year for every person in the country. The typical hiker needs about two pounds a day when active outdoors. That means using just the three categories noted would provide enough food to satisfy the average person—and that’s ignoring fruits, vegetables, and everything else the U.S. grows.
Not only does the U.S. produce far more food than it needs, it could grow much more. Farmers enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program are paid each year not to use their land. The program annually pays about $1.7 billion a year to ensure 24 million acres are left fallow.
This means more land than the entire state of Indiana is taken out of production annually.
So Why Are People Still Going Hungry?
Given how bountiful the U.S. is, why does hunger remain a problem? Poverty and lack of access to resources are two of the key forces defining hunger in the U.S.
The link between poverty and hunger is clear. Approximately 40 percent of families living below the federally mandated poverty rate ($23,850 for a family of four in 2014) were hungry that year. Households with children, single parents, and those living below the poverty line are at particular risk.
In “Child Food Insecurity: the Economic Impact on our Nation,” John Cook and Karen Jeng note that hunger and food insecurity are a health issue. Hungry children are more likely to be sick and developmentally impaired. In other words, hungry children do not live up to their potential.
Recall the last time you went grocery shopping. Did you take a cab or drive yourself?
For Americans who lack cars, it is a challenge to find transportation to and from a market. Traveling home with bags of heavy, perishable goods (think of carrying a gallon of milk to and from a bus stop) is not easy. Add in the time constraints of work, child care, and maintaining a home, and the challenge grows even more overwhelming.
But the challenge of hunger is not simply an urban or ethnic problem. Food deserts are a problem for rural Americans and are concentrated in the south.
Rural Americans may live hundreds of miles and many hours from a grocery store or a source of nutritious foods. In fact, more than 50 percent of all food-insecure households are found outside of metropolitan areas.
Rural and southern households pose a unique challenge. Rural homes suffer from unemployment at rates greater than their urban neighbors. Southern homes lack educational opportunities and both lack access to family-based services like affordable child care and public transportation.
Can We End Hunger in the U.S.?
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent hunger. It is a problem that will persist. Yet we do have some ways to fight hunger and, with luck, reduce food insecurity.
Aid is a good place to start. By donating our time, money, and food to local charities, we become part of the solution. But charity doesn’t address the bigger challenges the hungry face.
Hunger is about health care, poverty, and education. Ending hunger and food insecurity requires investing more money in these areas and enacting policies that reduce unemployment and lift wages.
We can also reduce food insecurity by improving public transportation and other infrastructure to make it easier for grocers and farmers to get nutritional food to the people who really need it.
No one should go hungry or feel insecure about their next meal in the U.S. in the 21st century. As the 2016 presidential campaign slogs on, we can be part of the solution by both giving of ourselves and asking our leaders to address this vital issue and promote food security as a sacred right for all Americans.
Jeffrey H. Cohen is a professor of anthropology at The Ohio State University (OSU). Jay L. Zagorsky is an economist and research scientist at OSU. This article was originally published on The Conversation.