Hunger in America

Elisa Perry


When someone thinks of a person who suffers from hunger, we often picture a frail, emaciated individual. We think of a person with minimal access to any type of food. When we further think of hunger in America we may imagine individuals who are at an extreme disadvantage in our society: the homeless, the disabled who are unable to work and maybe even the idea of a person who is just too lazy to seize the financial opportunities given to them. While in some cases these may be fair assumptions, the overall evidence supports a very different idea as to what hunger in America looks like. What if I told you that some of the most intense hunger problems in America affect our obese population? Is that a hard statement to wrap your mind around? Consider this, when financial resources are minimal and physical stores that typically carry healthier options are not within a close proximity, the main goal becomes to eat something filling. Most often that “filling” food is cheap and unhealthy. In my opinion, the notion that this is an often misunderstood truth is a major hindrance to effectively minimize this problem. When we misunderstand the root of a problem, or even facts surrounding it, how can we tackle it and help our fellow citizen? It’s time to reconsider what it means to be hungry in America.

We often do not associate hunger and obesity as one problem but the truth is hunger and obesity are directly tied together. According to Andrew G. Rundle, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, “Hunger is certainly almost an exclusive symptom of poverty. And extra obesity is one of the symptoms of poverty”. When the Food Research and Action Center completed a survey in January of 2010, a whopping 37% of residents in the Bronx area of New York stated at some point during the previous 12 months they had lacked the money to buy food. Surveys and studies regarding this topic have recently compelled researchers to re-evaluate our definition of hunger. Now defined as “food insecure” we have a new perception of what hunger in America looks like. The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle” ₁.

Demographically, in poverty-stricken neighborhoods there are not as many grocery store options as a more affluent area would offer. This means that there is less access to fresh, healthy foods for these locations. Typically, lower-income regions have a higher amount of convenience stores which provide minimal healthy options of food. If we redirect our focus back to the Bronx we will see on a smaller scale what is going on across all of America. A 2008 study of the Bronx revealed that 9 of the 12 community districts had too few supermarkets. The lack of supermarkets results in the general population to depend on unwholesome food that is deficient in the basic nutrition our bodies need to function. When fast food and convenience stores are readily available with inexpensive, but filling, options they will become the primary source of food for an impoverished population. We can all relate to this concept, irrespective of our neighborhood. We know from experience that we can purchase an order of French fries at any fast food chain for about $1; however, if we buy a cup of fresh fruit from the produce section of a grocery store we will spend about $5.

The lack of healthy food options is not the only factor in the link between obesity and hunger. If we examine the element that says generally a lower-income individual may have to work long hours to make ends meet or even work two jobs just to get by, leaving less time to prepare healthy meal options. These individuals are more prone to eat on the run and lack the time to exercise and properly care for their bodies.

In the midst of this subtle tie between hunger and obesity is there a solution to be implemented?  Linda I. Gibbs, the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services, is purposefully and strategically taking steps to combat the connection between hunger and obesity in the Bronx. Her action concentrates on three elements: providing income supports, increasing healthy options and finally, encouraging nutritious behavior.

Focusing on the individual at hand, a Health Bucks program has been put into operation. This program provides an extra $2 for every $5 spent at the farmers market when purchasing food with food stamps. The city has also started bringing healthier food options to lower-income neighborhoods by sending carts that sell fresh fruit and vegetables directly to the communities. Addressing the issue regarding the scarcity of full service grocery stores in improvised areas there are also new ideas being commenced. In order to attract supermarkets the city is offering tax credits and other incentives. This is proving to be effective as a Foodtown store will be rebuilt and expanded after burning down last year and an existing Western Beef store will be expanded. While both of these are taking a step in the right direction I believe more can be done to address this issue.

Lets start with the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) initiative. SNAP allows approved individuals to purchase food with an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card. This is commonly referred to as food stamps. The EBT card allows individuals to purchase food from grocery stores to supplement their food budget. While it is a beneficial program it may at times counter the idea of encouraging nutritious behavior. Did you know that you can purchase energy drinks, processed desserts and even alcoholic mixers (such as mocktails and margarita mix) from this program ₂? None of the preceding items are healthy in any way. Some states even allow an EBT card to be used at fast food restaurants to purchase tacos, hamburgers and more items which also lack nutritional value and contribute to the obesity epidemic in America. The purpose of SNAP is to help make ends meet and make sure that nutritional items can be accessed by all. These items are surely filler foods and might even be considered as luxury items to some. What is my SNAP suggestion? Eliminate the junk food available for purchase. Continue to allow the often controversial items, such as steak and seafood, as these items are rich in nutrition and will serve bodies well.

Another possible solution to this problem would be to create an incentive program for supermarkets that would provide a delivery service in lower-income areas. One of the biggest reasons grocery stores do not build in disadvantaged neighborhoods is the lack of transportation within the community. Often times we need a vehicle after shopping to carry our large amount of bags out. Since impoverished populations generally do not have access to personal vehicles they can only buy what they can carry. This is a disadvantage to everyone. The supermarkets do not make the profits desired and the individual cannot purchase all of their necessary items in one trip. If the supermarkets would receive some form of tax break or cash incentive to provide a grocery delivery service to homes this would help ease the negative impact to both parties involved. It would also create an atmosphere to supply healthier food options to those who otherwise would not be able to seek them out.

According to a Cornell/Brigham Young study, it is estimated that a possible $5 million a day across 31.6 million national school lunch eaters is thrown out ₃. Allow that to sink in. $5 million dollars of food that is thrown into the trash while some kids are sent home from school on a Friday not knowing if they will be eating over the weekend. Consider if schools provided to go bags for students? Students could pack up their lunch leftovers, of course giving mindful consideration to the food type, and take them as a snack for later. Certainly this would not eliminate the massive $5 million dollar daily amount of waste; however, it could substantially reduce it while simultaneously providing additional nutritious food to a low-income child.

Lastly, a resolution we could all be a part of: community giving. Big corporations and government can really only accomplish so much. It ultimately comes down to caring for one another. There are currently over 200 food banks and over 63,000 food pantries and shelters throughout the United States ₄. According to the Feeding America website, 46 million Americans turn to their network every year for extra food support. That is 1/6 of the American population. What can you do to help? Food pantries and meal programs rely on volunteers to function properly. Sorting, packing and stacking foods at the food banks make a substantial impact in their daily operation. Donating food items to the pantry also makes a significant difference. You can contact your local food bank to see where areas are available to give your time and financial resources. Another way to help out is to take the time to buy healthy, nutritious items from the store and deliver to a family in need. With 1 in 6 Americans being affected by the hunger obesity paradox in our nation, chances are you know someone in need. Take the time to give whether that lies in your cooking ability or monetary advantages to give back to our communities and the surrounding areas. When we take care of our own we all rise.

While today we centered on the numbers of the Bronx, we cannot forget that the hunger obesity paradox is a national concern for our society. We have struggling communities suffering from hunger that include the elderly, disabled and children. The research done over the years leads us to conclude in summary: the restricted access to healthy food options results in choosing inexpensive foods that are void of nutrition. This causes a rise in obesity among lower-income communities. Since the problem is identified it is time to fight toward the resolution. We live in a country that provides an abundance of healthy food options, so much in fact that they often go wasted when not used. We need to bridge the gap between the waste and those in need. Together we can effectively do this to eliminate hunger in America.



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