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.