30 March 2013, 19:47

Food insecurity hits almost 15 percent of US households

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Food security means everyone having access to enough food to maintain a healthy life at all times. In the United States today, nearly 15 percent of households have reported food insecurity at some point during the last year. That is to say that they are either hungry, or uncertain about their food supply.

The issue is particularly concerning for households with kids and minority families. In a country that wastes about 40% of the food that is produced each year, people are developing diseases that are specifically related to not having enough food. This paradox illustrates the importance of creating a fair system for food distribution throughout the US, and beyond.  

The World Food Summit in 1996 defined food security as a situation “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Conversely, food insecurity occurs when people are hungry, or at risk of hunger, ether periodically or permanently. 

In the United States, while 46.9 million people were in poverty, 32.6 million adults experienced food insecurity in 2010. So far these figures remain unchanged. Alicia Cohen, a family physician at the University of Michigan Medical School, stated, in an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’, that: “food insecurity is a significant problem in the United States. Food insecurity in the US reached rates of almost 15% in 2008, which was the highest it had been since 1995. Unfortunately, rates of food insecurity have remained essentially unchanged since 2008 and rates of households who report being very food insecure actually increased in 2011.” 

The expert continued: “14.9% of the households were reported being food insecure for at least part of the year during 2011. That means that they were either worried about food; or worried that they might not have sufficient access to nutritionally adequate food; or that they were changing the way they were eating to save money due to economic hardship. One in 5 households with children reported food insecurity during that time. Among that group, almost 6% were very food insecure, which means that they were not only worried about food, but might be hungry, meaning food intake was reduced or people were missing meals. Food insecurity status tends to fluctuate over time. People may be food-secure, then be food insecure for a while, then food-secure again.” 

Food insecurity is a household situation, not an individual one. Some homes are at greater risk of food insecurity than others. Among the groups with the highest rates of food insecurity are those with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, single parent households and African American or Hispanic households. According to Dr. Cohen: “The latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data indicates that over 25% of Black and Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2011. In households with children headed by single women, rates were almost 37%. Almost 10% of the elderly report food insecurity. There are more and more applying for food assistance and the demographics of people applying for food assistance are becoming more diverse.”  

Although food insecurity affects an entire household, it may affect individuals within it differently. The case of children living in food insecure households is particularly striking, as good nutrition is essential not only for a child’s physical development but also their ability to learn, grow, and fight infection. According to the USDA, nearly 17 million children are consistently unable to access nutritious and adequate amounts of food across the country. School meal programs, which allow kids to have breakfast and lunch at school, are in Dr. Cohen’s opinion, important tools to reduce food insecurity among children. 

Food insecurity has diverse roots. “This situation is related to the general economy as well as rising food costs. It is also affected by disparities between the rise in cost of healthy food and the rise in cost of junk food. The prices of healthy food have risen at much higher rates than that of junk food,” Alicia Cohen explained.According to USDA statistics, between 1995 and 2000 the price of soft drinks and sweetened beverages went up by 20%; fat and oil went up by 35% and sugar by 46%. At the same time the price for fruit and vegetables increased by 118%. “In fact, it is becoming more and more expensive for farmers to grow produce. On the contrary, junk food is becoming cheaper and cheaper to produce, as the processes are becoming more streamlined. Calorie for calorie, the junk food is much cheaper,” said Dr. Cohen.  

Food insecurity is therefore a multifactorial issue related to the availability of food, people’s access to food, and appropriate use of it. Consequently, Cohen believes, food insecurity is not solely a cost issue, “It’s the cost; it’s the access; but it’s also people’s ability to cook healthy food”. This problem is made all the more serious for people living in “food deserts”;a term that describes areas where grocery stores are either totally absent or inaccessible to low-income shoppers. People are forced to use smaller stores that may not have a good range of affordable, nutritious food.  

Individuals who experience food insecurity either occasionally, or for long term periods, often develop serious health problems ranging from obesity to heart disease. Alicia Cohen has observed in her clinical practice; “In terms of the diseases that we see, obesity is a major issue and we are also seeing soaring levels of other diet-related diseases including diabetes and heart disease. Adults with severe food insecurity are more than twice as likely to develop diabetes than adults who are food-secure and they are more likely to have poorer control of their diabetes than diabetic peers who are not food insecure. When the cheapest foods are calorie dense and nutritionally deficient, this translates into higher rates of obesity and uncontrolled blood sugar.” 

Many studies have proved that nowadays, while almost half of the food produced is thrown away, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone adequately. In the US, about 40% of the food produced is never consumed. The challenge of achieving “good” and fair food distribution is therefore fundamental and should be treated as such.

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