A child returns home from school, his eyes drawn to the refrigerator by the strong hunger dwelling within him. Having used up his energy from learning and play, food was needed to replenish his body both mentally and physically. He places his hand on the refrigerator handle in hopes that there is food to eat, only to find emptiness, no food in sight. His family had once again run out of food, struggling to make ends meet with the little money that they have.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40 million people are food insecure in America as of 2017, meaning that they live in households that lack access to the nutritional food necessary to live healthy and active lives (Coleman-Jensen et al.). Despite the abundance of food that is produced, the fact that there are still so many people suffering from food insecurity emphasizes the severity of the problem and suggests that there may be other issues that lie at the heart of the matter. Many are led to assume that food insecurity is from low income, but while that may be true in some cases, the answer is not so simple. Food insecurity does not necessarily mean hunger. The USDA breaks down food security into four levels: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security, where low food security households reduce only their diet quality and variety, as opposed to very low food security households with individuals whose diet intakes and eating behaviors are significantly reduced and disrupted (“Definitions of Food Security”). Because food insecurity is defined by both diet quality and food intake, location and other financial considerations need to be taken into account. When left unchecked, people put themselves at risk of health complications and further financial difficulties. Even with the aid of government food assistance programs and food banks, the food insecurity crisis continues to persist, and as food continues to be wasted day by day, actions need to be taken to provide the initiative for more food donations to these underprivileged people.
Food insecurity does not exist on its own; it draws on other factors that influence one’s ability to attain food. According to a food security survey conducted by the USDA, “rates of food insecurity are higher than the national average for the following groups: households with income near or below the Federal poverty line, all households with children and particularly households with children headed by single women or single men, women and men living alone, Black and Hispanic headed households, and households in principal cities and nonmetropolitan areas” (Coleman-Jensen et al.). In these cases, money is the underlying component that would influence food insecurity, specifically income and employment, in addition to the number of individuals that need to be supported under a total household income. Map The Meal Gap 2018, a nationwide project led by Feeding America, America’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, offers statistics that reveals that “counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity have notably higher unemployment and poverty rates, lower median incomes, and tend to have higher uninsured rates” (Gundersen et al.). This is significant to note because while it does reaffirm the connection between low income and lack of food, it also suggests that by having a low budget, other financial expenses are jeopardized.
People in food insecure households often have to make choices between food and other necessities, such as health insurance, housing quality, and other items needed for day-to-day life. Having to choose one over the other introduces further health risk. The Map The Meal Gap project illustrates the cycle of hunger and health, describing that with food insecurity, coping strategies of buying cheap food often take place, which leads to poor health and the inability to work, further resulting in healthcare costs that restrict food budget and encourage spending tradeoffs (Gundersen et al.). This ultimately explains why food insecurity is linked to health complications because by choosing cheap food, quality and variety is sacrificed. Eating the same foods every day limit people from getting all the nutrition that is needed to function properly. According to Feeding America’s 2014 study, “79 percent of client households report purchasing the cheapest food available, even if they knew it wasn’t the healthiest option, in an effort to provide enough food for their household.” Unlike food secure households, those in food insecure households do not have the luxury to pick and choose the most nutritional foods when they have other expenses to take care of with their financial restrictions. Money does not need to be the only limiting factor for households that live in food deserts. The USDA defines food deserts as areas where there are scarce amounts of “fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods,” because of the “lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers” (“USDA Defines Food Deserts”). Here, people have to choose whatever is available to them, even if that happens to be high-calorie and processed foods from convenience stores. This unbalanced diet, if continued for the long-term, increases the risk of diabetes, heart and pregnancy complications, and other chronic diseases. This leads into the importance of food assistance programs and food banks that provide food insecure families with more access to quality food.
Food assistance programs and food banks are a part of life for food insecure individuals and families, meaning that they should be taken advantage of when they can. These food assistance programs include SNAP (previously known as food stamps); WIC, which distributes “supplemental foods, healthcare referrals, and nutritional education” to “low -income women, infants, and children younger than 5 who are at nutritional risk;” and the National School Lunch Program, which provided “low-cost or free lunches to over 30.4 million children” in 2017 (Coleman-Jensen et al.; Oliveira; “WIC Program;” “National School Lunch Program”). Not only do these programs provide individuals with more food, they also seek to promote nutritional health, which is an essential skill for any individual who wants to live a healthy and active life. The only problem is that not all food-insecure people use or are eligible to these food assistance programs. According to the USDA, “about 58 percent of food-insecure households reported receiving assistance from one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs” (Coleman-Jensen et al). The remaining 42 percent are either ineligible or are not registered in these programs. The first step is to encourage those who may be eligible to apply because every little bit helps, especially to those in dire situations. Professionals in this area of work need to ease and help guide food-insecure people through this process. Unfortunately, “1/4 people who are food insecure are unlikely to qualify for most federal nutrition programs (Gundersen et al.). This means that instead of food assistance programs, they will need to rely on food banks and pantries that provide food to the needy. Another issue that needs to be addressed is food waste, which is common despite the millions of people who need food.
According to Jacob Gersen, a law professor at Harvard and “director of the Food Law Lab at the Petrie-Flom Center, 40% of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten and that consumers waste approximately 160 billion pounds of food each year.” This amount of food is a striking alarm that points out the inefficiency that we and businesses have of dealing with food. Instead of throwing away excess food, there is the potential for homes and business to donate to charitable food organizations and food banks. The major concern with this method of help is food safety. Gersen describes how many restaurants and businesses fear being sued despite laws being placed that protect donors from such harm. The problem is that “in order to be protected. . . restaurants have to comply with state and local food sanitation and label regulations, which vary widely” (Goldberg). This means that health and food regulations differ from state to state, which further complicates the process of food donations. This difficulty prompts people to waste food over taking all the steps necessary to donate it all. Food safety needs to be further developed and standardized in a way that eases the complexity and difficulty of food donations.
The way to approach food insecurity is to start by promoting the use of food assistance programs, food pantries, and food donations by easing the process with the guidance of professionals and creating health laws and procedures that make the issue of food safety less of a grey area and instead be the cause of saving millions of food-insecure households. Why should perfectly good food be wasted when there are those who are in need of such foods? In addition, stronger communities should be built that encourage sharing, which will thereby eliminate surplus food and leftovers in an effective way. Individuals also need to start dealing with food more responsibly by cooking appropriate amounts and storing leftovers for further use as opposed to letting food go bad. Unperishable items should also be donated to food pantries whenever people can. This is a collective effort and with the help of locals, donators, volunteers, and others involved in the charitable food industry, much can be done to fight this food epidemic.