By Lucy Wang
Hunger stalks America. It creeps along streets, sparing many, but preying on a fifth of the population. According to data from the USDA, 13.5 million households in the U.S. were food insecure at some point during 2021. Evidently, this is an issue – an issue we’re all aware of, given the countless food drives and pantry efforts that take place throughout the country. With that in mind, it begs the question: why, in the 21st century, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is food insecurity so prevalent? Neither the answer nor the solution is straightforward. Let’s begin by defining the issue. Food insecurity is the state of being unable to access or afford enough nutritious food. This is a problem for several reasons.
Being what it is, it’s no surprise that numerous health complications come with food insecurity. Being unable to access nutritious food, and at times, not enough food at all takes a toll on the body. The results can be devastating. Research published in The Journal of Applied Research on Children from 2006-2014, provided data that showed that children in food insecure families had a higher chance of developing iron deficiency anemia, asthma, tooth decay, behavioral problems, and low non cognitive performance in school. Not only are children negatively affected, but parents are too. Mothers in households that weren’t totally food secure were found to have higher rates of mental health issues. The 2.3 time increase in depression and suicidal ideation rates among food insecure youth is a truly disturbing number to think about. Beyond the childhood effects of food insecurity, we can begin to see the long term effects in adults. Diabetes, hypertension, bad sleep, and generally poor health are found to be more prominent in those who experienced the lack of nutritious food. To make matters worse, many families can’t afford proper healthcare. They are forced to choose between buying food to eat, or taking care of their health problems, a choice no one should ever have to make.
This introduces the next factor in the conundrum of food insecurity: money. People who have lower incomes often end up living in areas where transportation isn’t as readily available, work is scarce, and there are little to none full-service stores or supermarkets, because it’s cheaper to live there. What I’ve described just now is what is known as a food desert. The Human League defines a food desert as an area in which people that are living there have limited access to enough nutritious food, either due to a lack of stores, transportation, low income, or a combination of all three. Many people are aware of this, and so communities nearby sometimes take part in organizing food drives to collect and distribute food to those that need it. Or, food pantries will be stocked, so that those in need can pick up necessities.
However, these methods don’t get to the root of the problem, or at least one of them. A major cause for these food deserts is the fact that there aren’t enough supermarkets and stores for people to buy from. The solution may seem simple; companies just need to open new locations in food deserts. This is where we hit a wall. Research in the market shows that many companies aren’t willing to invest in an area they won’t profit from. Namely, areas of low income. As a result, food deserts are stuck in a state of needing new stores to be established, but also being unattractive to the owners of said stores.
Most people probably agree that food insecurity is an issue related to poverty, but some will argue that that claim is false. Admittedly, it is true that wealthy households can be food insecure, but it cannot be overlooked that income is a primary factor in this. According to the NIH, “low average wages, high housing costs, low participation in food and nutrition assistance programs, high unemployment rates, residential instability, and high tax burdens increase the probability of food insecurity in households with children.” Low income means that there may not always be enough money to be spent equally on everything such as education, insurance, utilities, and food. Choices will have to be made, and as mentioned before, people may have to choose between difficult things, such as healthcare versus food. This can lead to a situation where there is deficiency in one or the other, in which the lack of either one causes harm to the family.
Food insecurity is like a tangled ball of yarn. It’s inextricably intertwined with poverty, and it’ll no doubt be a struggle to untangle this mess. The people who are suffering from this may have to deal with the physical and psychological repercussions for many years to come. Families may never fully recover, and relationships may never be repaired. For them, change must happen, and it has to happen soon. It will be hard, but change has to be made for those who have suffered for far too long. America is capable of rectifying this nationwide crisis, but it can’t be done just with will and moral arguments.
So what can be done? First, policymakers must be made aware of the causes and consequences of hunger, and take action. Voters can help by educating themselves on the topic, and supporting legislation that provides relief to those affected by food insecurity. The government can offer incentives to encourage supermarkets and full-service stores to branch out into areas that are currently food deserts. However, this all takes time; time that can’t be spent idly waiting for help at a federal level. Locally, community food drives and pantries should be organized to gather and distribute food to those that are in need. Change requires that everyone get involved, in some way, shape, or form. Hunger isn’t something that can be ignored. Hunger is everywhere it shouldn’t be, and it’s time that actions be taken against this national crisis.