More than 10 years after the Great Recession, the supply of confidence in our nation’s economy may be full, but the pantries of many people across the country are as bare as they were when the economic decline started in early 2008.
Food-insecure households are at times uncertain of having — or unable to acquire — enough food to meet the needs of all their members. As the economy has soared in recent years, the rate of food insecurity has limped from a recession era peak of 14.9 percent to 11.8 percent, slowly closing in on the pre-recession rate of 11.1 percent.
However, at the year-to-year rate these numbers have improved, it may be well into the 2020s before that happens. It also doesn’t help that the current rate of 11.8 percent is far from “good news.” It means 40 million people — including over half a million children — are living in food-insecure households.
How is food security measured?
Around 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began measuring household food security, a concept centered on understanding whether households have enough consistent food to live healthy, active lives. Leslie Hossfeld, dean of Clemson’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, said the USDA has refined the measure over the years to capture the range of severity of food-insecure households and their relationship to hunger.
Hossfeld explores the concept of food insecurity in a new book, “Food and Poverty: Food Insecurity and Food Sovereignty among America’s Poor.”
“Food insecurity is essentially a proxy measure for hunger,” Hossfeld said. “The official measure of food insecurity in the United States is established through the Current Population Survey’s Food Security Supplement. Respondents are asked if they worry about running out of food or whether they ever went without food for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for it.”
How does availability affect food insecurity?
According to Hossfeld, food insecurity is often associated with living in a food desert, which is defined as an area in the U.S. with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Food deserts can lead to higher rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases.
“Food deserts may not directly cause food insecurity, but they do provide good indicators of areas where food insecurity is more likely to occur,” Hossfeld said. “These areas are primarily in lower-income communities, which are disproportionately, but not exclusively, populated by African-Americans, Hispanics and other marginalized racial and ethnic groups.”
Hossfeld said these households have higher health care costs; increased likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and higher blood pressure; and health problems associated with access to food. Health care costs have been almost 50 percent higher in food-insecure households when they are compared to households that are food secure.
The food insecurity/obesity paradox: how is this possible?
“When we think about poverty and hunger in developing nations, we think immediately about children who are thin and underweight; we call this malnutrition,” Hossfeld said. “Increasingly in the U.S., malnutrition has to do with food and the food environment in which people live.”
Easy access to cheap food is a good thing, but problems begin to mount when that food has little to no nutritional value and is high in calories and fat. Malnutrition in the U.S. is not an issue of being underweight, but comes from a lack of healthy food that then leads to obesity. Accessing healthy, affordable food should not be a challenge, yet it is one of the greatest struggles Americans face.
Hossfeld said place matters. Food insecurity is higher in rural areas and the inner cities of metropolitan areas and it is lower in suburbs. It is greatest in the southern region but growing in the West. It is also important to know the difference between food access and food insecurity; this difference is clear when comparing food deserts to “food swamps.”
“Food swamps are areas in which the only food you can access is fast food or food from a convenience store,” Hossfeld said. “You have access, but the food has very poor nutritional value.”
What can policy leaders do to address this issue?
The problem that looms largest over all of these issues is the stark lack of orientation between agriculture, nutrition and health policy, according to Hossfeld. She said farm policy and food policy do not equal health policy.
The role agriculture plays in improving health and nutrition cannot be overstated. Agriculture farm and food policy that supports and builds local food system initiatives may provide the greatest opportunity as a potential solution to food access and increased health outcomes.
“The clear disconnect between agriculture policy, nutrition, health policy, food access and food insecurity has led to conditions that are truly perilous in terms of intensifying health inequities and health disparities,” Hossfeld said.
The international response to the malnutrition epidemic has been through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has recently aligned its strategies to alleviate hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity by calling for sustainable food systems for healthy diets and improved nutrition.
The FAO, the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme have declared a Decade of Action to eradicate hunger and prevent all forms of malnutrition, including obesity. These organizations’ research and programmatic agenda around sustainable food systems is essential for health and well-being. Hossfeld said thinking big and small is the only way to truly put a dent in food insecurity numbers in a timely fashion.
“Community-based sustainable food sovereignty programs may provide the greatest mechanism for and greatest likelihood toward food justice in the U.S. today,” Hossfeld said. “Aligning agriculture and health and nutrition policy to enhance the food environment is not only a local, regional, and national challenge, but a global mandate that all should follow.”
Prepared by Michael Staton, Clemson University, College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.