Global Justice

Food Security and Malnutrition in the United States

In the United States, hunger and poverty go hand in hand. The outcome is not only a health epidemic, but a culture of inequality.

Food Security and Malnutrition in the United States
Clients shop in the food pantry of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger at The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in New York.

What does it mean to be hungry and impoverished in America in 2016? It’s a tale as old as time.

Starting Out Food Insecure

A food insecure woman gives birth to a baby who is both premature and undernourished. The baby, from the moment it is born, is more susceptible to infections, diseases, and hospitalization — which all affect its growth and development in the long term.

Because the child is also growing up in an impoverished household, they will have limited quality education, limited attention from their parents (who work two or more jobs to keep a roof over their head), and will probably also have to share everything with their equally hungry and impoverished siblings.

In school, the child will rely on one free school meal a day for most of their nutrients, which are not wholesome enough or balanced enough to fuel their learning. They fall behind in school and are exposed to toxic levels of stress at home due to food insecurity and poverty — especially as the child watches their parents skip meals so that the child won’t have to go to bed hungry.

Because of the exposure to this stress as a child, they are more likely to develop early onset chronic diseases, develop depression, and/or drop out of school which will all lead to difficulty finding a stable place of employment in the future.

The child’s food insecurity, which they have been experiencing since they were born, may cause them to become overweight or obese as an adult. They may have also developed some sort of disability, perhaps due to the labor-intensive jobs they take on because of their limited education or even perhaps due to the limited amount of healthcare they have access to while being impoverished and having to choose between going to the doctor or securing a meal for themselves and their family.

Food Facts

This story was included in Bread for the World Institute’s 2016 Hunger Report. The accompanying statistics that revealed the severity of food insecurity, and the prevalence of stories like the one above, were even more shocking.

In 2014, 19.2 percent of households with children in the U.S. reported being food insecure. Every year since 2008, the number of food insecure people in the U.S. has fluctuated between 48-50 million. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 47 percent of households had trouble putting food on the table in 2012. In addition, the World Hunger Institute reported that 46.7 million Americans were living in poverty in 2014, 19.9 million of those were living in extreme poverty, and those living in poverty were up to 80 percent more likely to experience hunger and food insecurity. The U.S. Center for Disease Control consistently warns that more than one third of all U.S. adults are obese. America has a food problem.

Nutrition and More

Calories have never been cheaper in the U.S., but a nutritious diet is increasingly harder to come by. Americans are eating diets consisting of cheap, highly processed, fatty, sugary foods that are caloric but lack nutrients to keep the body functioning the way it should. Steady diets of cheap, manufactured junk foods lead to severe malnourishment, which lead to chronic and financially debilitating conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

So why don’t Americans simply eat more fruits and vegetables? If an American is dealing with food insecurity and malnourishment in such a manner as mentioned above, they probably live in or near a food desert, another phenomenon.

Food Deserts

The USDA defines food deserts as parts of the country that are lacking access to fruits, vegetables, and other whole healthful foods, often located in impoverished areas without easy access to grocery stores, farmers’ markets and/or healthy food sources. People living in these food deserts often have no other option than to buy their food from places such as gas stations or low-stocked convenience stores where, instead of fruits and vegetables, processed, sugary and fatty foods are sold. About 2.3 million Americans live more than one mile away from a supermarket and do not own a car.

Because there is a strong correlation between food insecurity and obesity rates, studies have also shown that death from obesity is twice as likely to occur in food deserts, which are largely inhabited by impoverished minority populations such as African-Americans and Latinos. While unhealthy eating may be economically cheaper in the short-term, the consequences of limited access to healthy foods is one of the main reasons that ethnic minorities and low-income populations show statistically higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related conditions than the general population. Even if a person does not live in a food desert, fresh produce and nutritious foods can be expensive and are not readily available in all communities. Studies have found that wealthy neighborhoods have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and that grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection.

Thinking back to that child who was born premature because of their mother’s food insecurity and lack of access to proper prenatal care, who was later suspect to toxic levels of stress and often had no more than one full meal a day provided by their school – how much worse would their story be if they were also living in the middle of a food desert, if they were part of an ethnic minority, if they were already genetically disposed to diabetes and obesity because their parents were born in that same food desert and suffered from the same challenges that came with being food insecure?

Directives and Sustainability

What can be done? Many Americans rely on government-led food programs, such as SNAPs, to supplement their income and allow them to purchase groceries from themselves and their families. Food pantries, food banks and community-led initiatives in food deserts allow those neighborhoods suffering from the fate of never being within a mile’s reach of fresh fruits and vegetables access to a wider variety of nutritious food options. Healthcare reform in the U.S. is putting hunger and poverty in America on the political agenda of the country, especially during the election season. More than 20 percent of the country’s GDP goes to healthcare, and the biggest burden on healthcare are the effects of hunger and poverty. It is important that these initiatives continue to be carried out across the country on local, state and national levels.

Helping to alleviate America’s food problem can be as simple as volunteering at a soup kitchen or educating your local community about a balanced diet and nutrition, or as complicated as passing direct legislation on reducing hunger in the U.S. However, soup kitchens and food banks are only short-term solutions and do not address the root of the problem: inequality. Only by addressing inequalities and systemic issues can sustainable solutions be found. People need equal access to food, equal availability of healthy food, and equal distribution of food.

Food is a basic need and a human right; all people have a right to access to affordable quality food, regardless of their class, sex, race, income, ethnicity, nationality or any other demographic subset. Food is not a commodity or a business; it is necessary for survival and subsistence. A person cannot go without food, just as they cannot go without air or water.

Maryna Prykhodko works for the office of Global Justice as an intern.

Posted or updated: 11/7/2016 11:00:00 PM
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Suggested Pages:

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