What is Hunger in the United States?

What is Hunger in the United States?

Did you know that 40 million people in the United States experience hunger. This is startling given the fact that the us is one of the richest countries in the world. Perhaps you’ve participated in a hunger drive at your school, have volunteered at a food pantry, or even experienced hunger yourself. So what is hunger and how do we manage this problem in the United States? In this episode, we talk to professor Janet Poppendieck of the Urban Food Policy Institute at the City University of New York, to explore some basic definitions of hunger and food insecurity, who it affects, and solutions to address the problem. Host: Rebecca De Souza, professor of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth and author the book, “Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries.”

Interview Summary

So Jan, you’ve written three books on hunger in the United States, “Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat“, “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America“, and the widely read and critically acclaimed classic, “Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement“. Could you please start us out with some basic definitions? What do these terms, hunger and food insecurity actually mean in the United States?

The term hunger has many meanings. It’s the signal that our brain send when we’re running low on fuel and it’s a welcome and necessary part of our biology, but when we can not meet that need, then it becomes a social problem, a problem for the society. In the US it has proven to be very difficult to agree on how to measure hunger, and so in fact, we have shifted in the last several decades to reliance on the term food insecurity to designate the situation that we’re concerned about as a society. There is an official definition of food insecurity, which is used by the United States Department of Agriculture in the measurement of hunger, and it’s simply that the excess to adequate food is limited by the lack of money and other resources. So a household is considered food insecure when they don’t have enough money and other resources to obtain sufficient food on a regular basis. And we do measure this problem annually, the Bureau of the Census conducts a episode of the current population survey in December, and generally releases the data on household food security and insecurity in the following, September, households are classified as food secure or as having low food security or very low food security.

Thank you for clarifying those terms for us Jan, how both hunger and food insecurity are measured, and then for all that history as well. So you’ve been an anti-hunger advocate for decades now. So tell us, what do we know about the extent of hunger in the US and who is impacted by it?

So, because of the annual household food security survey, we have pretty reliable numbers. And I wanna turn to the numbers from before the pandemic, because they were part of a long-term trend of an increase in household food security. So in 2019, before the pandemic, about 35 million Americans lived in food insecure households, and that was 10.9% of the population. And that was the lowest since the measurement began 25 years ago. And of course food insecurity is not randomly distributed, so the groups with the highest levels of food insecurity will not come as a surprise. Households with children were more likely to be food insecure, households with children under six were even more likely to be food insecure, and households with children headed by a single woman were very likely to be food insecure, 28.7%, as opposed to the 10.5% for all households. Women living alone and men living alone, both had rates higher than the average. And it was not as it never is in the United States distributed evenly by race and ethnicity, households with a black non-Hispanic respondent were twice as likely, nearly one in five Hispanic households had a high rate of food insecurity, 15.6%, as opposed to the overall 10 1/2%, and Native American households, one in four, was food insecure. On the other hand, white households were far less likely to be food insecure about one in 12. It won’t surprise anyone either that households with lower incomes were the most likely more than 1/4, households with incomes below 185% of the poverty threshold were characterized as food insecure. If you look at the figures for the very low food security, the pattern is the same, households with children, the households headed by women, and households of racial and ethnic minorities were the most likely to suffer this. If we turn to look at what’s happened since the pandemic, it’s quite distressing. Food insecurity in households with children has doubled to 27.5% now, so more than 1/4. Parents usually try to shield their children from food insecurity, so not all children in a food insecure household are themselves experiencing hunger and food insecurity, but the Brookings Institution shocked many people in mid summer by releasing a study showing that nearly 14 million children in the United States had experienced food insecurity in the third week of June, 2020 when the study was done, and that was five times the number for the full year of 2018. Feeding America, the alliance of food banks in the United States, now reports that 45 million people experienced food insecurity in 2020, and projects that 42 million will experience it, including 13 million children in 2021.

Thank you for painting a very clear picture for us about who was impacted by hunger, both pre and post pandemic. Now let me ask you something that might seem self-explanatory, what causes hunger?

Well, like the distribution of the problem, the causes will not come as a surprise. Fundamentally, food insecurity is an income problem not a food problem. So if we look at the situation of people who showed up in the survey as food insecure, we may wanna distinguish between those who are in the workforce and those who can not or should not work. Among those in the workforce, unemployment, under employment, and low wages are the culprits. And these are obviously aggravated by a lack of affordable childcare and by unregulated housing markets. For people who can not or should not work, ill health, disability, and inadequate public and private income provisions are to blame. If you look at the households that reported such high levels of food insecurity among children, 48% of them had someone working, 23% had lost a job, 13% were at home due to caregiving responsibilities, 8% were out due to ill health, and only 3% were in fact out of the labor force, people who were not typically reliant on wages as their primary source. And then if we dig a bit deeper to say, “Okay why are so many people in the United States in this situation?” We find the decline of labor unions, and a decline in protections for workers, the globalization of labor markets, the concentration of power in the hands of corporations and wealthy persons, and thus their ability to implement the austerity agenda of neo-liberalism, which resulted in a reduced capacity of government to assist inadequate minimum wages, inadequate income support programs.

That was incredibly helpful, thanks. My final question for you is this, can you explain to us how hunger is addressed in the US, and what tools we use to deal with this problem?

Especially since the pandemic, I think many people in the United States think of the iconic pictures of long lines at food banks as the way we have responded to hunger. But in fact, public programs are far and away the bulk of our response. The SNAP program alone, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, provides nine times the amount of food that’s provided by the entire Feeding America network of food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. There are 15 federal food assistance programs in the United States, and in a typical year they reach about one in four Americans. The fundamental approaches that are embedded in these programs, one is transferring food specific purchasing power to families in need, and that’s how the SNAP program works, with an EBT card (Electronic Benefit Program card) that works like a debit card at the supermarket, and the WIC Program does the same for postpartum women, pregnant women, infants, and children up to the age of five, with allocations of specific nutrient dense foods. And then we have programs that provide actual meals, the biggest of these are the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program that provides subsidized meals for children in our schools, some children qualify for meals that are free or at a very reduced price, other children purchase their meals, but the meals are still subsidized by the federal government. And then there are additional smaller programs that provide meals for children in daycare and after school programs, in summer programs that provide meals for seniors that provide groceries on Native American reservations. We have, as I say, 15 different programs, and still we’re not eliminating food insecurity in the United States. And in part, this has to do with the fact that all of these programs are . Generally speaking, they are based on assumptions about diet, on something called the Thrifty Food Plan, that is unrealistic about how much income people need or how much purchasing power people need in order to obtain an adequate diet. There are many barriers to participation, there are eligibility requirements that exclude people who are in need and procedural requirements that exclude people who are legally eligible, but can’t make it through the many hurdles between need and response. We know how to do this, we know what needs to be done to make these programs meet the need for food in our society, we need to eliminate unnecessary eligibility requirements, we need to base the both eligibility and program benefits on a realistic contemporary standard, we need to remove the three tiers of eligibility for school meals and feed all children as part of the school day called Universal Free School Meals. We know how to do this, we just need the political will to make it happen.


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