Hungry America

By: Grainne Rhuad

Last week I caught a report on NPR regarding hunger in America.  The family highlighted was well below the poverty level making $18,000.00 a year with a household of six people.  The father worked when he could and the mother was disabled.  They live in Pennsylvania.

What caught my attention was the food stamp allowance.  It was reported that they received $600 a month in food stamps.  In addition they made weekly trips to the local food pantry and claimed to have a garden.  Still this family reported being hungry and not having enough to get by.

This situation boggled me.  When I checked NPR’s website and saw the pictures of the family I was further confused.  This family was overweight.

One cannot dispute that $18,000.00 is hard to live on.  Basic needs probably aren’t getting met.  Electricity and natural gas are probably hard to pay for.  Clothing, rent, transportation, school supplies and medical care are probably a hardship on this family and other families like it.  However it seemed to me that their food allowance which combined factors out to about the same as their cash income is adequate to provide.

I posted the link to the story and received a great deal of response from it.  It seems that other people are of the same opinion as me.  In fact I myself have a household of six souls and feed them for less than $600.00 a month.  Our monthly food budget hovers somewhere around $500.00 and that includes eating out.

So I began to wonder, is this a regional issue? After all as a Californian I may be completely out of it.  I am blessed to live in an area where the growing season is good for most everything from rice to almonds.  We have vegetables fresh year-round, and game and fish are pretty plentiful.

Regional Differences

There are in fact some regional differences.  While a lot of us have access to farmer’s markets, and roadside stands as well as good grocers, cities that consist of urban sprawl like Los Angeles seem to have a unique problem.  It is often too far to travel to get to a store that has reasonable prices and when you are living below the poverty level transportation is tricky.  Bus and rail systems in the United States are downright bad.  They are either expensive or non-existent.  Therefore people who are poor are stuck with whatever small market is in their neighborhood. These small markets very often don’t see themselves as grocers and mainly stock their shelves with snack foods and instant food, the type of stuff you would find at a 7-11.  This situation makes it both expensive and unhealthy for consumers.

Reports from the USDA pointed out people in urban areas are more likely to be hungry for just this reason.

However in a city like Carlisle, PA there’s ample opportunity for farmer’s markets and good grocery stores.  In fact there is a farmer’s market held two times a week.  There are also at least eight lower cost grocery stores.  So why is this family unable to make their food budget stretch?

Poor Nutrition

The answer lies in poor nutrition.  This family in their interview freely admitted that they cater to their children’s likes and those likes were bad nutritional choices.

When people eat mostly processed and ready to eat food, they are taking in a higher amount of calories while at the same time not getting the nutrients needed for daily life.  Instead of reaching for pop when thirsty, which granted is cheaper nowadays than milk; a person could and should be reaching for water.  Our bodies need it and it is obviously better than the sugar or sugar substitutes used in pop; some of which are cancer causing agents.

A real problem our nation seems to have is an inability or unwillingness to cook from scratch.  Whole foods, whether vegetarian or not are always going to be cheaper and better for you.  The problem is people have grown into believing it is harder to cook from scratch than it is.

This problem is compounded with the lack of education.  In previous years government help agencies like Women Infants and Children (WIC) that helped supplement food provided counseling and teaching around good nutrition and food preparation.  With deep cuts to low income supports there just isn’t the staff to provide this training anymore.

The same is true at school levels.  Where home economics was offered at every Jr. High and High School in America, now it is a hard to get elective and very often our youth have no room for electives.

In addition many food programs like the school lunch programs serve high calorie, high fat, highly processed food.  So while the government is providing food to children and families it is of such a poor quality that it is actually robbing them of health.  The result of this is an increase in diabetes, obesity, allergies and other health problems. reports that:

–36.3 million people–including 13 million children–live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten 0households in the United States (11.2 percent). This is an increase of 1.4 million, from 34.9, million in 2002.

–3.5 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 9.6 million People, including 3 million children, live in these homes.

–7.7 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 26.6 million People, including 10.3 million children, live in these homes.

However they go on to state that “two further points are important:

–First, this is really “experience hunger at some time during the year.” A majority of the people who were hungry at some time during the year were hungry in several different months, but only for a few times each month. So that daily statistics for hunger would be smaller.

–Secondly, the number of children that experience hunger would be smaller, as adults usually try to shield children from hunger. The first people to be hungry are usually adults.”

Organic Food

As Penn and Teller pointed out in their Showtime show last season, organic food is bullshit. In recent times we have been sold on the idea that to eat optimally we must buy organic food.  It is this perception that contributes to people reporting that they cannot afford to eat well.  Technically speaking all food is ‘organic’.  It’s an organism.  It grows.  But in blind taste and sight tests subjects generally cannot tell the difference between organic food and non-organic food.  Your body as it processes it cannot tell the difference.  It uses the calories and nutrients in exactly the same way as non-organic food.

In addition ‘organic’ food is more expensive.  This is mostly due to the fact that in order to be certified organic you have to submit your farm to rigorous testing for a minimum of three years.  Organic farmers also have a more labor intensive farming operation than non-organic farmers.  I’m not advocating for dumping a load of pesticides on food, however there are many small and local farmers who don’t meet the FDA’s definition of organic simply because they cannot afford to put the money into certification.

My advice, buy fresh produce that you can afford and wash it, it is going to be better for you than a $.99 hamburger whether it’s organic or not.

The bottom line is yes, many people in the United States are hungry and many of them are obese and still hungry.  However, in a lot of cases they are already receiving enough assistance to remedy this.  What we as a nation need to improve upon is education and nutrition.

9 Comments on “Hungry America”

  1. I can’t argue with what you say, I live in Pennsylvania, but have no idea where Carlisle is. In the inner cities I do know that food is more expensive and that many people have to travel long distances to go to a grocery store .. but education is a key component here .. people who have little often feel the need to “treat” themselves to less than nutritious food. My Dad always bought whole chickens and then cut them up, it was cheaper .. my aunt, his sister, was on welfare and bought boneless chicken breasts …. my Dad understood the value of hard work and of a dollar, my aunt, who never worked, is an idiot .. she never understood the value of anything and expects everything to be provided for her .. being on the bottom of the pile must affect your thinking about everything …

  2. While we have ex-President Bush to thank for lowering the standards of what is considered organic, i think the real issue in that nasty little campaign to put naturally grown foods on the public health back burner is corporate farming. Foods – any foods – only have as much nutrition in them as they receive from the soil or other source of feed. It’s a chain reaction. Corporate farming strip the soil of all its nutritional value, and is completely dependent on oil-based fertilizers, growth stimulants and is loaded with preservatives. I bought some apples at Christmas time from one of the corporate laden stores because they were cheap. One rolled to the back of the refrigerator and was forgotten about. A few days ago, i was cleaning out my refrigerator, and found it. The apple was in perfect condition. I decided right there, on the spot, that i didn’t want to eat it because an apple that can last more than six months without even a bruise isn’t natural.

    It used to be said that America’s worst crime was what they threw in their waste dumps; usable items, building supplies, outdated but still working technology; now it’s what they put in their stomachs. Convenience foods, microwavable foods, packaged foods, none with any significant nutritional value. America is fat on empty calories. This isn’t just a problem for food stamp recipients but for everyone.

    I have no problems with the food stamp program which shouldn’t be held responsible for people’s food choices. Those choices are no different from any other income class that does not rely on food stamps for substantiating their diets. Those choices can and do rely as well on food banks, which provide very healthy foods in dried staples, such as beans, rice, flour, oatmeal and powdered milk. The ones who are truly suffering are those who work, but whose income doesn’t allow them to keep up with the high costs of shelter and utilities. Even with the provision of food stamps, they still cannot make enough to keep up with their monthly bills. What good is it to have staples if your gas is turned off? What good is it to have perishable foods if you have no place to store them? People will eat what they please, good health be damned. But what will they do during the long winter months if they have no heat? If we want a healthy America, not only should we say no to corporate farming, we should insist the government step in and put a stop to spiraling housing costs and energy prices. We are a fat America, but we have no homes.

  3. Let’s face it, all these problems related to “hunger,” “water shortages” and “homelessness” and such can be traced back to one single root cause – this planet is over-fucking-populated! That’s why the soil has been depleted of nutrients, the water tables are overtaxed and wilderness area is being destroyed at alarming rates unheard of in pre-industrialized times: there’s just too damn many homo sapiens running around on this little mudball!

    All of this could have been easily prevented by some popluation control (like easy, unstigmatized access to birth control or abortions) during the last century, but now we are just too late – things like corporate farming and urban sprawl are now not only matters of convenince, they are *essencial* to the survival of the surplus population (as unhealthy as the lives of those people are, getting rid of such things would be a death sentence to those part of those who are beyond the natural population cap) and thus society will not get rid of them anytime soon: after all, the establishment still needs cheap labor and the surplus population serve as a ready source of it.

    If you are really serious about getting away from these plagues, flee the cities and go set up your own gardens and hunting preserves out in what wild areas still exist – that’s the only place where you’ll have plenty of space and natural resources, as well as produce foods in their natural states…

  4. Great article. I have been thinking about this for some time. Many of your responders make very good points (but I take exception to the over population argument. There is plenty to go around if we practice sustainable food production). Let’s not forget about the influence of food marketing and the media (Phillip Morris’s majority holdings are processed food companies. Hello! Wake up people!). Ads are misleading and are effective in selling their product. Processed foods are cheaper than whole foods. AND when people are stressed and depressed they tend to eat more Bottom line is we need to be better educated, more active and less lazy, buy locally and eat less. Our planet can sustain us. But we need to be better stewards of it.

  5. Great job, Grainne. Glad someone finally called organic food bullshit. Then again, anything made with fertilizer is technically bullshit.

  6. Mitch, if it was bullshit, it would be better, but chemical fertilizers are made from oil and chemical fertilizers are what corporate farms use.

  7. Great article. As a project coordinator in food security in Montreal I can say the problem in the Western world is largely a question of quality and know-how than actual quantity. Most people have inadequate or unhealthy diet, in Montreal about 70% of the population doesn’t have the 5 fruits-vegetables intake that is recommended as minimum by the Ministry of Health. The causes of food insecurity are part lack of financial ressources (true) but also people simple don’t know how to cook anymore, and they don’t know the produce that grows right outside their doors. This is another kind of poverty, and more insidious: intellectual poverty. The situation here is not getting any better I can tell you…

    Though I also agree with Christopher: over-population is real and the only way we can sustain so many people now is with heavily industrialized agriculture, centre-peripheral parasitic relationships (urban leeches off rural) and domestication of everything in between. That cannot last forever and the Isle of Easter stands as a brilliant example of a closed life system unbalanced to extremes. In the end, the inhabitants turned to cannibalism before they all died of hunger…

  8. I think most everyone has hit on something that has been bothering me. It is those who work and are working-class to middle-ish class and even some professional class folks who are haveing a harder time feeding their families. It is these folks who don’t qualify for government aid yet don’t have enough to stretch their food budgets.

    There is enough land out there that if managed right could feed us all quite well. One of my biggest pet peeves is golf courses, acres and acres of land that could be community gardens hogging up water resources for the rich and upwardly mobile. If we could harness land such as that and put it to good use, we would be a step in the right direction.

    I also feel that people need to somehow learn basics. Healthy eating is actually cheaper dollar to dollar. It just seems hard because most people don’t have their cupboards stocked with basics. Once you establish a good cupboard, buying fresh produce in season and adding to your meals is easy and cheap.

    I will concede that if one is vegetarian and wants to eat well roundedly in America it is more expensive. I lived that way for a couple of years and it’s almost as if our society is designed to punish non-meat eaters. Protein sources for vegetarians is more expensive and I blame that on the Orgainic Machine. Once again certification for orgainic farming is ridiculous.

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