HUNGER IN AMERICA

Hunger does not take a day off.  It does not take a vacation.  It is omnipresent.  If you are struggling to put food on the table, it a 24-7 proposition.

Thanks to modern technology, the US produces considerably more food than its population, as a whole, needs.  Indeed, it exports much of its excess food.  So, paradoxically, why do so many Americans constantly struggle to get enough food?  Why is there this sizeable disconnect?   Well, for one thing, we waste tremendous amounts of it.  Think of how much food you throw out on a daily basis.  Think how much food restaurants throw out. We order oversized portions and extra dishes and don’t finish them.  Big eyes, small stomachs. Remember, that your parents used to exhort you to “eat everything on your plate” by telling you that “people are starving in China?”  Well, add to that the fact that people are starving right here in the US.

Statistics vary from year to year and from study to study, but roughly one of seven households (that’s roughly 40 million people, folks), suffer from what the USDA euphemistically calls “food insecurity,” or the “lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members.”  Leave it to the government to come up with such a term.

When one hears about food insecurity, one conjures up visions of Appalachia or the rural South.  The fact of the matter is that studies show that food insecurity is present, to some degree, in virtually every county in the country.   Other findings (some of which may surprise you, others, not):

  1. The federal government spends some $50 billion annually on various food programs.  The largest and best known of these is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.”  That is a huge amount, but hunger has persisted at fairly consistent levels from year to year.  Why?   It is either insufficient or, more likely, a lot of it is being wasted somehow.
  2. The states with the highest incidence are Mississippi and Arkansas with 21%.  North Dakota has the lowest at 8%.
  3. The rate is substantially higher in households headed up by a single parent, male or female, a Hispanic or an African American.  There are many reasons for this, but that analysis is beyond the scope of this blog.
  4.  Obviously hunger generally goes hand-in-hand with poverty, but, according to a 2012 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy some middle class families also suffer from food insecurity.
  5. Poor people are often unable to purchase enough food, and government programs can be insufficient, so despite the excess mentioned above, they go hungry.  For example, some 20 million school children receive free or reduced-price lunch in school, but less than half of them get breakfast at home, or, even lunch, during school vacations.  The plight of children can be illustrated further by the fact that almost one-half of the participants in SNAP are under 18.
  6. Sadly, various studies have shown that these children have a higher incidence of physical and psychological problems due to malnutrition.  They tend to get sick more often, and their illnesses linger longer.   Additionally, they do not relate as well to their peers, nor do as well academically.  In my opinion, the plight of these children is the most unfortunate aspect of this situation, as they are merely victims of the circumstances of their birth.  Moreover, they will have a considerable uphill battle to succeed in life.
  7. The elderly (over 65) have a higher incidence of food insecurity.  According to Meals on Wheels, the highest incidence is found in Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas.  This affects the elderly physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
  8. Generally, minority groups have a higher incidence that whites.
  9. Rural locales have a substantially higher incidence that urban.  This is primarily because rural areas generally have a higher incidence of poverty and also may not have as much access to food due to distance from stores and lack of transportation.  Suburban areas have the lowest incidence.
  10. Examples of other factors contributing to a family’s hunger would include loss of a job, a sudden serious illness, or the death of the primary bread winner.  A substantial number of families live paycheck to paycheck and have minimal savings, which makes them particularly vulnerable to the above situations.

Hunger in the US was an issue from the very beginning.  Back in the 17th Century the early colonists faced a constant battle to obtain enough food.  Sometimes, Native Americans helped them through the rough winters, but many settlers literally starved.  Whole colonies, failing to adapt, were abandoned.

Eventually, however, the colonists did adapt, and by the 19th Century hunger was not common.  There was a plethora of productive land relative to the sparse population.  Jobs were generally available, and people looked out for each other, ensuring that the truly needy rarely starved.  This changed radically during the Great Depression.  The high unemployment rate (up to 25% in 1932) and “dust bowl” years’ crop failures have been well-documented.

Things improved during the post-WWII years, but hunger was “rediscovered” in the 1960s.  The so-called War on Poverty/Hunger became a popular political issue, spurred on by Presidents Johnson and Nixon and Congressmen, such as Senators Robert Kennedy and Joseph S. Clark, Jr.  The government began to fund various programs, but unfortunately, little has changed in 50 years.

CONCLUSION

In my opinion, this high incidence of hunger and poverty in the midst of all this country’s riches is a national embarrassment.  It should be very disturbing to all reasonable Americans.   Incidentally, I’m talking about the truly needy here, not those who are “gaming” the system.

Equally confounding is the fact that 50 years of government programs have not alleviated the problem appreciably.  Many people feel that these programs have exhibited significant waste and inefficiency, and, logically, it is hard to argue with that point.   But, that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and give up.  If the problem were easy to solve it would have been already.

One obvious solution would be to provide more jobs.  I’m not talking about minimum wage jobs.  In many cases, minimum wage jobs provide less money than government assistance.  I am talking about jobs in which one can earn a living wage and are located where the needy ones live.  This will not be an easy task, since many of the unemployed may not have the skills or training needed for the jobs that are available.  In any event, this cannot be accomplished overnight.  I don’t know exactly how we can accomplish it, but I fervently hope that the politicians can figure it out.

The first step to solving this or any problem is to recognize that one exists.  I think this problem could use a higher profile.  The various politicians, action groups, media outlets, and celebrities who have a big profile and influence need to focus on it.

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