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Hunger in America: 1 in 8 Americans Faces Food Insecurity

by May 7, 2009 blog

We all sense that there is a big difference between feeling hungry and being afraid of dying due to not having enough nutritious food to eat. Since most of those reading this blog have never experienced the latter, when we hear that some Americans are now experiencing food insecurity, we can mistake that to mean that those Americans are feeling unsure about some future ability to provide food for themselves. But that’s not it. Food insecurity isn’t a mild fear of future grocery shopping challenges. Food insecurity is indeed health and life threatening. The term food insecurity is used to describe real hunger and the immediate dangers that threaten health when people do not have enough to eat.

A household is considered food insecure when its occupants live in hunger or live in danger of starvation. The term food insecurity originated in the mid-1970s during the discussions of international food problems at a time of global food crisis. Then, the focus of attention was primarily on food supply problems – of assuring the availability and to some degree the price stability of basic foodstuffs at the international and national level. Much has changed since the 1970s. The gap between the rich and poor has widened dramatically. Average incomes have declined, even among the middle class. Many of our social outreach programs have been reduced or eliminated. Existing programs don’t reach all the hungry Americans.

With at least one in eight of us facing hunger insecurity and our nation still struggling with a severe economic downturn, do we have the political will to make sure that our fellow citizens can eat during these tough economic times? If so, what exactly will we do?

I know this: The hungry won’t be able to eat unless we do something about it. The food they need will not magically materialize onto their kitchen tables.

Today, we learn that a least one in six young children live on the brink of hunger in 26 states in the U.S. The rate of food insecurity in young children is 33 percent higher than in U.S. adults, where at least one in eight live at risk of hunger. More than 35.5 million Americans lived in households (before the recession) unable to consistently purchase adequate food. These results come from the first ever state-by-state analysis of early childhood hunger, using data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At least one in every eight U.S. residents is not only hungry but also is living in poverty, according to the last official count conducted by the Census Bureau.

But both of the above sources reflect conditions through 2007, well before the current recession. You might guess correctly if you imagine that the true numbers today would be more like one in every six adults and one in every five children are experiencing hunger in 2009.

According to a new report issued today by Feeding America, sponsored by the agri-business ConAgra Foods, more than 12 million children in the United States were previously food insecure – unable to consistently access adequate amounts of nutritious food necessary to avoid illness or to remain alive. The following data was collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) over a three-year period. The report analyzed it to determine specifically the number of children living in food insecure households by state.

By State – Rate of Food Insecurity Among Children Under 5 Years of Age:
(worst states listed first)

  • Louisiana – 24.2%
  • North Carolina – 24.1%
  • Ohio – 23.8%
  • Kentucky – 23.3%
  • Texas – 23.3%
  • New Mexico – 23.3%
  • Kansas – 20.9%
  • South Carolina – 20.7%
  • Tennessee – 20.4%
  • Idaho – 20.2%
  • Arkansas – 20.0%
  • West Virginia -19.8%
  • Missouri – 19.8%

By State – Rate of Food Insecurity Among Children Under 18 Years of Age:
(worst states listed first)

  • Texas – 22.1%
  • Mississippi – 21.5%
  • District of Columbia – 21.4%
  • Tennessee – 20.5%
  • Arizona – 20.2%
  • South Carolina – 20.2%
  • Louisiana – 20.0%
  • Missouri – 20.0%
  • Maine – 19.5%
  • North Carolina – 19.4%

“Children are the engine for economic growth in the United States. Hunger creates unbearable, unsustainable costs that ripple through the economy and prevent economic success.” said researcher John Cook, Ph.D., of the Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, a nationally-recognized expert on child hunger, who conducted the analysis. “If we fail to give them the nutrition and health supports they need in the first three to five years of life, our economy cannot fulfill its potential.”

“The first three years of life are the most critical period of brain growth and development. Child hunger causes physical and mental impairment that may never be reversed. Child hunger also creates tremendous costs that are completely unavoidable. There is no better investment in a prosperous future than investing in ending childhood hunger.”

Poverty and hunger on any scale is intolerable in a country as wealthy as the United States. To reduce poverty and hunger – and eventually eliminate them – the United States (we, though our efforts, our politics, our policies, and our priorities) must act more boldly to reach out to hungry neighbors than we have for several decades. We just don’t have the time to waste.

Currently, the United States has one of the highest poverty rates among industrialized countries, while U.S. government spending on anti-poverty programming as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is one of the lowest among industrialized countries. Todd Post, senior editor for Bread for the World Institute, presents these points as crucial for addressing hunger in the United States:

  • The United States must make a national commitment to ending domestic poverty, establishing targets for a variety of indicators (e.g. hunger, housing, education and health) that will clearly measure whether the country is achieving progress.
  • Overcoming poverty requires both more personal responsibility and broader societal responsibility, both better choices by individuals and better policies and investments by government.
  • The United States must develop a strategy that both helps those who are poor get out of poverty and eliminates conditions that allow poverty to persist in our communities.

The chart below, from the Luxembourg Income Study, shows that the United States rates next to the bottom, in term of disposable income. In other words, next to Mexico, the U.S. has the highest rate of poverty when compared with twenty-one other rich counties.