“50 million Americans exist without enough to eat in a country where there is more than enough food.” This was the last line of the documentary, “A Place at the Table”, which sums up the horror of what is going on in the United States right now. Millions of Americans, many of them children, have no idea where there next meal is coming from. This is called food insecurity. Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as “having an active, healthy life impaired by lack of adequate food nutrients due to inadequate financial or other resources”. It has been linked to obesity, psychosocial and cognitive problems as well as behavioral issues in school among the children of poor and working poor families.
Unlike many third world countries who are battling hunger, we produce more than enough food to feed all of our citizens. Our problem is multi-pronged. Federal subsidies to agriculture favor crops that are ultimately made into highly processed food. School lunch subsidies are only $.06 a meal higher than what they were in 1973 making it difficult if not impossible to serve nutritious meals. Food banks are often stocked with nonperishable items that provide calories but not necessarily good nutrition. 23.5 million people live in a food desert, “a low income area where a substantial number of residents have minimal access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” These families are forced to shop in convenience stores or to travel long distances by bus or car to purchase healthy food.
The incidence of obesity began to rise in this country in the 1980’s. It is interesting to note that since the 1980’s, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up by 47% while the cost of highly processed foods has gone down by roughly the same amount. This is due in part to the USDA policy of providing 70% of farm subsidies to large agribusinesses who produce cotton, corn, soy, wheat and rice. Only 15% of subsidies go to dairy and livestock producers and less than 1% of subsidies go to producers of fruits and vegetables, most of whom are small family run farms. Highly processed food is more affordable but less nutritious than fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and lean meat. Low income families who are trying to stretch their dollars buy more of the former rather than the latter.
The Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 provides an increase of $4.5 Billion to the Federally Subsidized School Lunch Program over the next 10 years. It sounds like a lot of money but in reality it adds about $.06 per meal to a program which has not had an increase since its inception in 1973. The subsidy increase results in an allowance of $.96-$1.06 per meal for the cost of the food. It is very difficult to serve a well-balanced, nutritious meal on $.96. Several studies have been conducted that show that school lunch program meals are higher in fat and saturated fat than what is allowed in the Dietary Guidelines. This is a program that was hotly debated in both houses of Congress with many of our nation’s legislators staunchly against the increase. The TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout of lending agencies was $425 Billion over a period of a couple of years. The TARP bill passed with relative ease. It would seem that as a nation our priorities are out of whack.
Chronic reliance on food banks and convenience stores as primary sources of food means that food insecure families may be getting an excess of calories while facing a deficiency in nutrition. “In addition, in circumstances where food is limited, individuals report overeating or eating foods they dislike to compensate for periods of lack.” For these reasons there appears to be a direct link between obesity and other chronic mental and physical health issues among those people who are food insecure. One in three children born in the US will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. The cost of food insecurity in the US has a $167 Billion price tag because of the associated risk of obesity, diabetes and other health issues.
This problem deserves the attention of every American. We are among the richest nations on the planet and yet we rank number one in food insecurity. All of our citizens, especially our children, deserve to be free from food insecurity and its attendant health issues. We have to work together to solve this.
We should start with a widespread change in attitudes within the federal government. Agricultural subsidies, school lunch subsidies and the minimum wage must be reexamined and readjusted so the poor and working poor can have access to nutritious food. Current federally funded lunch programs should be expanded to include some meals for the entire family. Finally we need to allocate more dollars to programs that teach families who use food stamps how to shop and cook to get the most nutrition out of the food they buy. The correlation between food insecurity and obesity and the associated costs to our health system must be firmly established and widely publicized. Any legislator who doesn’t put their shoulder to the wheel on these issues must be voted out of office. We have to say “no kid hungry” like we really mean it.