Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

America’s Food Availability Crisis

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Image: Orphaned.


One thing that the Thanksgiving Holidays has made clear: America, the land of plenty where holiday overeating is celebrated as a social good, is suffering from a food availability crisis. The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture describes a range of food security categories, ranging from “food secure,” which includes high food security and marginal food security, and “food insecure,” which includes low food security and very low food security. Households whose food security was classified as either “low” or “very low” did not have enough money to purchase an adequate supply of food at least some of the time — and their numbers are increasing dramatically, as anyone who works at or depends upon a food bank or soup kitchen will tell you.

Across the country, more people are appearing at their local food banks and soup kitchens as they struggle to afford enough to eat. For example, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s (NYCCAH) Annual Hunger Survey reports that emergency food providers are serving 28% more people in 2008 than they had last year. But sadly, as New York City food banks point out, donations are down this holiday season just as the faltering economy has increased the need for their services.

“More people are unemployed. People are more desperate for food and scared that it will run out. We have people lining up for food two hours before we begin pantry distribution,” reports Christina Baal, Director of Immigrant and Family Services at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

This decline in food availability has caused NYC food banks and pantries to cut back on the amount and variety of food provided to the hungry and their total food supplies for the week are distributed within a few minutes instead of within an hour or longer. Worse, many pantries have been forced to open less frequently and to close earlier, and several dozen food banks in NYC have permanently closed their doors.

“We can’t nibble around this problem. Hunger is becoming a full blown crisis for our City, and our current economic downturn is only going to make it harder for thousands of New Yorkers to feed themselves and their families,” said Councilmember Bill de Blasio, Chair of the General Welfare Committee.

But what about the federal Food Stamp Program? The government does provide food stamps to impoverished mothers with children and to families and, in some — very rare, in my experience — cases, to single childless adults, provided that their incomes combined with other financial resources place them below the federal poverty level. However, in the case of single childless people, this requirement means they are nearly always homeless because it is nearly impossible to remain housed with an income that is below the federal poverty level.

Even though I qualify for food stamps, I have found that they are very difficult to obtain due to the confusion of paperwork, mistakes made by caseworkers and the tremendous humiliation involved in the application process. Other challenges and insults include the requirement that all applicants in NY state be fingerprinted prior to receiving food stamps — I find this requirement to be insulting beyond belief and I absolutely refuse to subject myself to this humiliation.

“We can and must do more to get food stamps into the hands of those who qualify. This means identifying potential applicants, removing the finger imaging requirement, and utilizing technology to ease and expedite the application process,” de Blasio continued.

Equally as bad as the humiliation factor, this fingerprint imaging requirement makes the food stamp program more expensive to impliment, which eats up federal funds that would be better used by feeding the hungry.

“Despite great progress in expanding food stamp registration and food accessibility by Human Resources Administration staff, New York City could save $800,000 annually by eliminating finger-imaging, freeing up more money for services while also removing a barrier for registration,” reports Councilmember Gale A. Brewer, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Further, even for those who qualify, the federal Food Stamp Program only provides an average of 79 cents per person per meal — try to purchase adequate nutritious food on that budget! As a result, most food stamp recipients experience a food shortage every month, which leads them to compromise the overall quality of the food they purchase; substituting greater quantities of poor quality “junk food” for smaller amounts of more nutritious food, and this leads to another problem: obesity.

Unfortunately, people who rely on food stamps, food banks and soup kitchens are typically villified as “fat and lazy” — implying that they somehow deserve their plight. While it is true that poverty, hunger and obesity are linked in America, this is primarily due to malnutrition. According to “The Paradox of Hunger and Obesity in America” [free PDF], a paper written jointly by the Food Research Action Center and the Center on Poverty and Hunger, there are a number of reasons why people who experience food insecurity are more likely than normal to be obese. These include the need to maximize one’s caloric intake in each meal, eating poorer quality food, and overeating when food is available.

Perversely, nutritious food is more expensive than so-called highly processed “junk food” and this price disparity is obvious for all healthy foods. The federal Consumer Price Index reports that a loaf of white bread costs less than a loaf of wheat bread; regular ground beef costs less than lean and extra lean ground beef; and cola costs less than orange juice. And, might I add, my local 99 cent store sells a bag of potato chips for less than I spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, or even a decent can of soup at a grocery store. Furthermore, “junk food” is easier to obtain in most low-income, inner city neighborhoods than nutritious food. All of these factors contribute to the already present problem of obesity among this nation’s poor.

Contrary to the other common public misperception, people who rely on food stamps, food banks and soup kitchens are not lazy. While it is true that these households are overwhelmingly impoverished, 29.3 percent in NYC were employed “working poor.” For example, in 2006 (the last year for which these data are available), food stamp households had a medium income of just $14,773. Even if you include food stamps as cash added to their income, 80 percent of food stamp recipients still lived below the poverty line. Further, 84 percent of all food stamp households included either an elderly or disabled person or a child, and these households received 89 percent of all benefits.

Because of their low incomes, even people who receive food stamps experience periodic food shortages that must be met, so they join those who cannot qualify for food stamps by visiting their local food banks and soup kitchens, adding to the demand from an already overwhelmed system, creating a national food availability shortage.

Why are food banks experiencing this crisis? There are several reasons. First, federal emergency food aid has been steadily declining for many years. According to a 2007 study by the Food Bank and Cornell University, New York City receives a little more than half the amount of its emergency food supplies annually from the federal government than it did just three years ago. But America’s Second Harvest (now known as Feeding America), the country’s largest emergency hunger relief organization, points out that federal food donations to food banks have been unchanged since 2002. Second, as the economic crisis cuts across most income groups, public donations of food and cash to local food banks are also down.

“New Yorkers in all five boroughs have felt the alarming rise in the cost of food in both their stomachs and wallets,” said Councilman Eric Gioia. “Eradicating hunger in New York City is a moral issue. The problem of hunger in New York City is a problem that all New Yorkers should care about — and one that we have the obligation to eliminate.”

What can people do to help? Of course, food and cash donations to your local food bank are desperately needed, but not everyone can afford to make such contributions, especially in the current economic situation, so volunteering is a popular alternative. Volunteer activities can range from serving hot food or packing cans onto shelves or into bags, but also include many other activities associated with running many non-profit businesses, such as fund raising, computer work, public relations and advocacy, such as writing blog essays.

If you are looking for food assistance or to help provide food in NYC, NYC’s Coalition Against Hunger offers the first ever interactive Hunger Maps detailing the locations for all food resources in NYC that can be located by zip code, keyword or borough searches. This helpful link also includes other food sources, such as farmer’s markets and summer meals programs.

Even though I have focused on the hunger problem in NYC, this is because I live here, and not because NYC is particularly unique in America, or even in the world. Regardless of where you live, I hope that you will take this article to heart and vow to make a life-long commitment to help the hungry in your own community, regardless of where you live.

Sources:

Food Security in the United States: Measuring Household Food Security USDA.

NYTimes (NYC food facts).

Ten Common Myths About Food Stamps (NYCCAH document).

Organizations to contact for more information:

New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH)

Feeding America (formerly known as America’s Second Harvest).

Comments

  1. #1 Constance Reader
    November 28, 2008

    I volunteer in two different pantries here in Austin and the last couple of months, the number of clients we serve has literally doubled in the last couple of months.

    Another problem is management of scarce resources. Back when Hurricane Ike hit the Texas-Louisiana coast, our area food bank sent a large amount of food down to the affected area. Yes, these folks were in crisis and needed food, however, the diversion greatly reduced the amount of food available for local pantries. As a result, our local people in crisis were able to obtain less and less variety of food.

  2. #2 Dody Bush
    November 28, 2008

    I have always been low income, but I have found other ways to help feed my family. Living in the country, I can grow a lot on my own. This next year I plan to grow enough for the Farmer’s Market. I also plan to keep my prices low enough for local elder people. This will help my income and their food security.

  3. #3 Thanos
    November 30, 2008

    Food is an energy intensive industry: whenever energy prices have a sustained rise, food prices follow with a two to three month delay. It takes energy to grow, to irrigate, to harvest, to package, to store, to transport it, and to sell it. Each step of the process is affected by energy price increases when they are sustained at high levels as we’ve seen the past two years. If people in the margins in the US are now suffering, then in poverty ridden countries people are starving. That’s why abundant clean energy is so very important.

  4. #4 michaelann bewsee
    November 30, 2008

    Thanks for this article– sums it all right up and saves me from writing it! (at least right now) I’ll be sending folks your way to read it.

    To further exacerbate all the factors you’ve named, I bewail that fewer and fewer people know how to cook. How many meals could the average person come up with if all they had to cook was rice, carrots, onions, eggs, breadcrumbs, powdered milk, a little flour and spices? I’m not blaming people for our hunger– just that we need to learn/relearn how to use what we’ve got.

  5. #5 Jonathan Wilson
    November 30, 2008

    How About starting with the production side. Get rid of the distortions that exist in the farm sector (for example, people being paid money to NOT grow anything or people being paid money to grow one thing even though they could grow something better instead). Get rid of the incentives and pressure to divert corn and other foods to bio fuel production (some statistics I saw suggests that the total energy input to produce corn ethanol and get it into your car is MORE than the energy output you get from that ethanol). Encourage farmers to grow MORE food.

    All these measures, if implemented, would presumably lead to a net increase in the supply of food which will help keep prices lower than they would be without these measures.

    To solve the energy crisis, instead of making corn ethanol, make biofuels from things like switchgrass (that can grow in places food crops cant). Oh and build cars that can be plugged into the wall (and take energy from whatever the local grid is using (for 99% of the US, that power source is going to be something that doesn’t require oil to function, be it coal, nuclear, wind, hydro or otherwise)

  6. #6 Helene
    December 21, 2008

    Thanks for contributing this important post to my Take Charge of Your Health Care Carnival. It is shameful that people in our wealthy country don’t have enough food to eat. Food and health care should be a right not a privilege. When Joe the Plumber was complaining about “wealth distribution”, Joe Biden stated during the campaign that it was a question of fairness. Frankly we could use a little wealth redistribution away from the fat cats in corporate America and the Finance industry who brought on this depression.

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