2.02.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 1

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 1: Who is Hungry in America? The Politics of Measuring Hunger

Summary:

Domestic hunger statistics are difficult to calculate, and sometimes that difficulty makes for an easy excuse.  Per a report in 1968, "some officials have turned ignorance into confirmation that malnutrition does not constitute a serious or pervasive problem."  (Even the presence of data, though, doesn't seem to convince everyone.)

The USDA, which is tasked with tracking and addressing hunger issues in the US, released its first report on hunger and food insecurity in 1995.  Prior to this, government rhetoric and juggling had allowed American citizens and government officials alike to pretend that America had no hunger problem.  The USDA has now defined two broad categories of food insecure households: those that are hungry (very low food security), and those that are on the brink of hunger (low food security).  Many households fluctuate between these two states.

On any given day, hundreds of thousands of households go hungry or struggle to find enough food.  This means that during every year, tens of millions of people experience low or very low food security.  The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with a desire to minimize such numbers, has stated that only 1 of 200 Americans goes hungry on any given day.  Anti-hunger advocates can also skew numbers, however: an Ohio group, for instance, claimed that 1 in 6 children "go to bed hungry every night," when a more accurate statement would be that 1 in 6 children are "at risk of hunger" every night.  Berg believes "such misrepresentation harms the movement in the long run."

Over 36% of households living below the federal poverty line are hungry.*  While hunger issues are most concentrated in urban or rural areas and in the South, the suburbs and other geographic regions are not beyond its reach.  Hunger is in fact a significant problem in every state in the country.  State tax burdens and availability of social assistance may have as much or more influence on hunger than does poverty level.  Anyone can go hungry, but it is far more likely that poor people without access to a college education actually will.

It's important to note that statistics on food insecurity "defy precise measurement" and may be flawed.  Current data gathering methods rely on self-reporting and do not account for homeless populations, for instance.  This means that tens of thousands of hungry people are omitted.  Undercounting may also occur due to the USDA's definition of hunger.  Those who depend on soup kitchens and food banks may not be included, because ultimately they are able to meet their food needs (even though it is accomplished by extraordinary means).

Food banks themselves are struggling to keep up with the ever-growing need for their services.  George W. Bush called on citizens to support faith-based feeding operations while cutting the federal donations such operations receive.  59% of such agencies were unable to meet their communities' demands in 2007.  "When the economy gets a cold, people in poverty get pneumonia."

*Note: as this book was published in 2008, such numbers may no longer be accurate.


Discussion:

Surprising no one, Louisiana's hunger problem paints an even more dire picture than do the national numbers.  While across the United States food insecurity has risen by 1.2%, Louisiana's has risen by 5.7% since the so-called Great Recession, putting us a full percentage point above the national average (15.7% in Louisiana vs. 14.7% nationally).  While one percent doesn't seem like much, when applied to Louisiana's population (calculated by the US Census Bureau in 2013 at 4,625,470) that means that an additional 46,250 or so people struggled to get food on the table last year than did so in 2007.  These are not numbers that can be ignored.

 Likewise, the numbers in New Orleans are potentially even more distressing.  A 2013 report by the Food Research and Action Center used Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index data to determine that  New Orleans has the second-highest rate of "food hardship" of any city in the country, bested only by Bakersfield, CA - a place that I have a feeling I'll be talking about in the future.  The data came from the responses of hundreds of thousands of households to the question, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?"  While nationally an average of 18.2 percent of respondents answered yes, in New Orleans 23 percent of respondents had had this experience.

What this means, on a practical level, is that when my husband is waiting at the Tulane Avenue bus stop on his way to work in the morning and there are three other hopeful passengers, chances are good that one of them has experienced food insecurity.  As seems to be the case all over the country, Second Harvest can't keep up with south Louisiana's need - particularly after SNAP benefits were reduced last year.  

Even if "only" 1 in 200 people experience hunger each day, that's still a large number of people in any metropolitan area.  That 1 in 6 children on any given evening can't be sure from where or even whether their next meal will come is appalling.  As I've mentioned before, such hunger has absolutely nothing to do with a lack of food.  We have more than enough food to go around.  We've simply decided, as a society, that people who can't afford food don't deserve to eat - even when those people are children.  Meaning that as a society, we are failing.  How can we fix this?

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