With less than a month left before Christmas, those who can afford it have already begun to plan their holiday meals. But for a growing number of Americans, Christmas will be a day when they go without food or lack access to healthy, nutritious food. From Connecticut to California, Mississippi to Maine, New Jersey to New Mexico, Oklahoma to Ohio, millions in America suffer daily from “food insecurity.” The government defines food insecurity as inadequate or uncertain access to healthy, nutritious food, due to lack of money and other resources.
Thirteen million U.S. households, totaling more than 36 million people, experienced food insecurity in 2007, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Similarly, the 2007 Hormel Foods Hunger Survey: A National Perspective and an Ohio Perspective found that more than one in 10 Ohioans had gone to bed hungry in the past month because they could not afford enough food.
Against a backdrop of stagnant wages, high unemployment, tight credit, and rising food costs in 2008, even some middle-income families now struggle to put food on the table. Still, research reveals that lower-income families, the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless—those with a thin safety net or none at all —are hit hardest by food insecurity.
- While the wealthiest U.S. households spend about 7% of their income on food and middle-income households about 13%, the poorest U.S. households spend a whopping 32 % of their income on food. So the poorest households run out of money sooner than do wealthier households, and they have no reserve funds to purchase additional food when the cupboards are bare.
- Almost 40% of all food insecure families in 2007 had a household income below the official poverty line, and in nearly half of these families, one or more members were employed . This suggests that low wages contribute to food insecurity among the working poor. Indeed, a report by the Children’s Defense Fund indicates that, in 2005, the monthly income of families with two, full-time minimum-wage earners was $625 less than the monthly cost of basic living expenses for a family of four. These income shortfalls help explain why 44% of the working poor in Youngstown, Ohio were forced to choose between purchasing food and paying utilities last year. Congressional hearings on food insecurity indicate that the working poor throughout the country make similar tradeoffs.
- The absence of supermarkets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables and an abundance of stores and fast food restaurants that sell high calorie, low-nutrition food in low-income neighborhoods compound the problems of the poor. A 1995 study of supermarkets in Philadelphia, for instance, found that there were 63.5% fewer supermarkets in Philadelphia’s lowest income neighborhoods than its highest income neighborhoods. Many people in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods have very limited access to healthy foods (see “Not So Super Markets” at http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com.) Similarly, a 2005 study of supermarkets in Los Angeles County found that middle and upper-income communities had 2.3 times as many supermarkets as did low-income communities (see “Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Improving Access and Opportunities through Retailing.” at http”//www.united wayla.org/getinformed/rr/research/basic/Pages/Page3611.aspx.) And a 2007 study of fast food found that Los Angeles County had nearly five times more fast food restaurants or convenience stores than it had grocery stores or produce stores. The residents of Los Angeles County had higher obesity rates and higher death rates than people in California’s most affluent counties.
Add to these difficulties a cultural ideology that attributes poverty to personal deficiencies, like laziness, stupidity, and/or craziness, and you have a recipe for hunger. You also have indifference to poverty, resentment of the poor, and people unable to feed their families and blaming themselves for their struggles.
You also have people like those who attended this year’s public Thanksgiving dinner at First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown: the little girl with corn-rolled braids with ribbons who wanted to know if she could have another slice of pumpkin pie; the shy, pint-size girl with long dark hair who searched my face for approval before she would eat; and the many “grownups” who asked me, “Are seconds allowed? May we have seconds?” Poverty and hunger have a human face.
During his campaign, President-elect Obama committed to ending childhood hunger in 6 years, cutting poverty in half within 10 years, and creating more jobs that offer a livable wage. The pursuit of these goals must remain a national priority. Charitable donations to food pantries and food assistance programs are needed and appreciated. But let us also work together to address the systemic factors that underlie food insecurity. Let us all work together to raise minimum wages, create more jobs in the United States, and educate and train people to fulfill those jobs. Let us all work to increase funding for federal nutrition programs and to build more supermarkets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. Let us all work against a cultural ideology that blames and punishes the poor for being poor. By doing this, we will increase access to healthy food for all Americans.