UNDOUBTEDLY, THERE’S SOMEONE YOU KNOW WHO LITERALLY CAN’T GET ENOUGH TO EAT.
What does hunger look like in the United States of America? Unlike historic photos of the Depression era or emotionally charged PSAs of starving children in third-world countries, hunger in America looks like working-class families, with homes and full-time jobs, who struggle to put meals on the table. Hunger in America is your neighbor’s child who will spend the day at school struggling to learn on an empty stomach, because their cafeteria refuses to serve children who have unpaid lunch debts. Hunger in America is that child’s parent who has to decide which bill they’ll sacrifice in order to have enough money to buy groceries.
According to Feeding America, 37 million Americans – including 11 million children – were food insecure in 2018. As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food insecurity is “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Food insecurity is also distinguished by the lack of financial means to be able to eat on a regular basis. Additionally, disabilities and other health complications thwart people’s ability to access healthy, affordable food. Hunger affects individuals across demographics, including children, the elderly, and rural and urban communities. The USDA reports that 9 percent of Black, non-Hispanic households, 5 percent of Hispanic households, and more than 12 percent of rural households experience food insecurity. Additionally, single women with children are disproportionately affected, with 9 percent of these households being food insecure. In addition to poverty, approximately 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, which are neighborhoods with limited to no access to supermarkets or grocery stores that have healthy food options.
Families across the country are forced to rely on food banks and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to make their nutritional ends meet. According to the USDA, approximately 40 million individuals rely on SNAP benefits, amounting to around 20 million households, and one-sixth of all children in the U.S. live in a household that receives these benefits. Even though this crucial program keeps families and individuals (such as people with disabilities and the elderly) in need fed, the current presidential administration intends to cut its funding. The New York Times reports that changes to the SNAP program would cut $4.5 billion from its budget, with this being the third time that the current administration has attempted to minimize the program’s funding. SNAP faces these cuts even though, according to the United States Census Bureau, these benefits kept more than 3 million people out of poverty in 2018.
While not a federal program, Meals on Wheels, which feeds more than 2 million individuals (mostly senior citizens) a year, faces a similar fate. Recent White House budget proposals have suggested eliminating the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) – a $3 billion program – which funds Meals on Wheels. Not only does the program feed our elderly population, volunteers conduct safety checks and are a crucial source of social interaction for those who are homebound. In addition to cutting the CDBG, budget proposals also suggest reducing funding to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for 18 percent of funding to Meals on Wheels.
Lack of finances forces people, with or without assistance, to compromise healthy nutrition for cheaper, processed foods – a short-term solution with long-term consequences. The physical health risks of poor nutrition include obesity, tooth decay, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and osteoporosis. Mentally and emotionally, an unbalanced diet might lead to depression, anxiety, poor concentration, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), aggression, irritability, and other cognitive and behavioral challenges. Children who face hunger are more likely to repeat a grade in school or experience developmental impairments. According to the Urban Child Institute, food-insecure children are 31 percent more likely to spend time in the hospital, and 76 percent more likely to have problems with cognitive, language, and behavioral development. Despite this, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that health providers often have trouble recognizing children and families who are food insecure, and states that there is a lack of clear connections between child development and food insecurity. Either way, these complications lead to expensive medical costs in the long run, exacerbating the financial stresses that cause food insecurity in the first place. The American Journal of Public Health reports that nearly 67 percent of Americans who filed for bankruptcy, between 2013 and 2016, did so due to medical bills.
With so many families and individuals facing the realities of hunger and poverty, what’s being done to support those in need? Organizations such as Blessings in a Backpack make it their mission to ensure that children across the country no longer go hungry. Additionally, there are federal programs besides SNAP, such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFA), that not only assist individuals but supply food banks as well. FeedingAmerica.org provides a list of different programs, both nonprofit organizations and federal assistance, with short descriptions of what they do and who they serve.
As of 2017, the U.S. spent $70 billion on SNAP and other federal assistance programs. In contrast, our nation spent $649 billion on the military – more than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany combined – in 2018. Surely, a fraction of this money could feed hungry Americans. As long as we exist as one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, no one in the U.S. – or anywhere – should be starving. Individual efforts, such as donating to nonprofit organizations, local food banks, or gifting a family by paying off a child’s school lunch debt are important and impactful. However, there’s only so much an individual can do when the powers at large make it a point to dismiss and dehumanize its own citizens by limiting the resources that make assistance possible or by withholding funding altogether. And this will continue to happen, as long as we treat access to healthy, affordable food as a privilege and not a basic human right.