What’s Food Insecurity in America: Past, Present and Post-Pandemic Future

by Angela Zhang

In 2019, the number of Americans in need of food assistance in the United States was at its lowest in over 20 years. The pandemic crushed any hopes for the continuation of this trend. 

A report published by Northwestern estimated that food insecurity – the limited availability of nutritionally adequate or safe foods – had “doubled overall and tripled among households with children” as a result of the pandemic, economic recession and subsequent unemployment.

To be clear, there’s a distinction between food insecurity and hunger. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), hunger is defined as the uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food. Alternatively, food insecurity is more of a social or structural issue that may or may not contribute to hunger among individuals. 

Missing your lunch break on accident may make you hungry but not necessarily food insecure. In the same way, consistently supplementing your diet with cheap, processed foods may alleviate hunger but might not address food insecurity. 

During the pandemic, low-income households and other groups such as senior citizens and students have been disproportionately burdened by food insecurity as a result of unexpected changes in lifestyle.

In an interview, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot the CEO of Feeding America – a network of over 200 food banks – recalls meeting an elderly woman who had saved up for retirement prior to the pandemic. Without warning, the woman became the sole caregiver of her grandchildren and had to rely on food banks to make sure they didn’t go to bed hungry. 

“It was one thing in her mind for her to go to bed hungry, which is a tragic thing to think that a senior in this country would go to bed hungry. But what forced her into action was that she couldn’t send her grandbabies to bed hungry. And that story repeats itself so many times,” Babineaux-Fontenot recalled.

Causes of Food Insecurity: Socio-Economic

While many people may view food insecurity as a personal budgeting issue, causes of food insecurity are often more complex. Cumulative burdens related to income, race, unemployment and disability can increase the likelihood of food insecurity in a person’s lifetime. This makes it significantly easier for certain groups to become and stay food insecure.  

Additionally, households may find it impossible to cover healthcare and living expenses on a minimum wage budget. For parents, the option between paying the bills and buying enough food to put dinner on the table are often mutually exclusive. 

In her experience Christina Dreier, mother of two, says “moneywise coming in is a lot less than what has to go out every month. A lot less. It’s never enough to buy groceries and pay for bills. So we always have to subsidize, either we pay our bills or if we pay our bills we don’t eat that good.”  

Due to a variety of factors, many low-income households either don’t have access to or time to prepare healthy foods. In areas known as food swamps, processed, fast foods are the only sustenance available at cheap prices or walkable distances. 

Causes of Food Insecurity: Environmental

Although climate change has already decreased crop yields globally, it’s unclear how changes to climate patterns might affect long-term yields in different regions. 

Still, It’s concerning that as a country, we import over 15% of our annual food supply, 55% of our fresh fruit and 32% of our vegetables. Due to the interconnected nature of our food system, it’s unlikely that the U.S will be insulated from extreme events and decreasing crop yields elsewhere. 

Imports vs. Domestic share of U.S consumption

Imports vs. Domestic share of U.S consumption: Different Food Groups. COURTESY OF THE FDA.

Nowadays it’s hard to discuss social issues without considering the disproportionate impacts of climate change and vice versa. Changes in climate patterns in the next decade or so could devastate communities already struggling with food insecurity. With an expected increase of higher global food prices, the cost of food will take up an increasing fraction of low-income budgets. 

“Climate change has already had the largest impact on the populations that are least able to respond to it. That impact is probably going to get worse in the future and going to continue to most negatively impact those populations that can’t respond,” said Michael Clark, a researcher at the Livestock Environment and People (LEAP) project. 

Solutions to Food Insecurity: Addressing Food Waste

One of the most basic solutions to food insecurity has to do with extensive food waste. Food waste includes all the food that is thrown out after it hits store shelves and doesn’t account for the food lost in yields, processing and transporting. According to the USDA, 30-40% of our food supply is lost to food waste. Reallocation of this edible food could significantly reduce food insecurity in the U.S. 

Providing resources to food insecure families can be a solution to food waste in itself.

Today, most food is lost to landfills, but a food recovery hierarchy created by the USDA reveals that feeding hungry people is the second most effective way to address food waste – behind reduction at its source. 

USDA Food Recovery Solution Hierarchy

USDA Food Recovery Solution Hierarchy. COURTESY OF USDA.

According to researchers studying the psychology of food waste, people are driven to reduce household waste for different reasons. 

For many Americans looking to reduce food waste, “the idea that excess food could be redirected to those that experience food insecurity might be the factor that spurs their action.” 

Many state legislatures have enacted policies to ban large quantities of organic waste – typically from large producers – generating economic activity for waste recovery organizations. In addition to its food waste diversion goals, California has also pledged to recover 20% of edible food waste for human consumption

Solutions to Food Insecurity: Urban Farming 

Urban agriculture is favored by proponents of Environmental Justice groups and ecologists alike for its regenerative social and environmental effects. 

Urban agriculture champions food sovereignty by providing jobs, increasing food access, as well as giving communities agency over where their food comes from and what type of food is grown. Different models of operation exist but many urban farms utilize community supported agriculture (CSA) to distribute food directly from farms to consumers. Community-supported agriculture allows customers to directly subscribe to periodic harvests.

Other urban farms have close ties with local organizations for distribution and also provide community plots for households in need of garden beds to grow their own food. 

One such farm is La Finca Del Sur in the South Bronx. They have shown that urban farming is not just a hobby, but can be a real source of food and herbal medicines for low-income communities. Beyond food, La Finca Del Sur champions the right of all people to healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate foods. 

“[Urban Farming] is a complete overhaul of the structure of our food system. It’s much more than just the food we eat; it encompasses where our food comes from, the types of seeds and crops we want to prioritize, and the conditions in which food and medicine are grown.” 

Solutions to Food Insecurity: Policy 

Since the implementation of the first federal food stamp program in 1939, a number of U.S policies have been enacted in order to address widespread food insecurity. 

Under the USDA, 15 programs – including the monumental Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – target food assistance and nutrition. 

In California, SNAP has been associated with falling rates of food insecurity – up until last year. Another study published in 2018 has found that SNAP is linked with improved health and nutritional outcomes resulting in lower medical bills. 

Emily Brown was a stay-at-home mother of two when her husband Tim Brown lost his job. “One thing I feel that I’ve learned in life or in the long run is that, you know, you never know what a day may bring,” said Tim Brown. “I’m just grateful that there is a number of safety nets there, including SNAP, to help people when bad things happen that are out of their control.” 

The unexpected onset of COVID plunged millions of Americans like Tim and Emily into unemployment or underemployment.

To account for this, changes to SNAP during the pandemic have resulted in extended benefits for seniors, families and even college students. Recently, a 15 percent increase added to maximum SNAP benefits has been extended to September of this year. 

“We recognize SNAP doesn’t just help boost and stabilize the economy, it has incredibly long-term benefits for health and well-being,” said Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “But it is my understanding that this is temporary, until the end of the pandemic. We need to look hard at the program and ask if it was strong enough before the pandemic.” 

Want to learn more about food insecurity and its respective solutions? Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on this series.

Have you or someone close to you been affected by food insecurity? Let us know what you think about these factors and solutions in the comments. 

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Dilan Patel
Dilan Patel
1 month ago

Great article. I agree that it is imperative for urban areas to have farms where they grow food for consumption. Imagine if just 1% of urban families farmed. The stress it could alleviate would be immense.

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