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Food Security in the United States not Returned to Pre-Recession Levels

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The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) recently released a report measuring the rates of food security among Americans by household for 2014. Food insecurity is defined by a situation in which “access to adequate food is limited at some point by a lack of money and other resources.” One or more members of a food insecure household saw reduced food intake or disruption in eating patterns due to lack or money or access to food.

By the numbers

According to the study, in 2014, 84.6% of Americans were food secure, with 15.4% (totalling 48 million people) insecure at some point during the year. Moreover, 5.5% of food insecure Americans reported very low food security; regular disruption of food supply and diet due to lack of resources.

The USDA survey stated that children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.4% of households with children. Generally, parents absorb the scarcity of the household resources, forgoing food in order for their children to eat. Despite this trend, the survey reported that both children and adults in 1% of households with children experienced severe disruption of diet due to lack of resources.

Food insecurity in the United States stood between 12-13% of the total population from 2001-2007, with levels of very low food security hovering around 3-4%. The recession of 2008 saw a steep descent in the food security of the country; with the number of food insecure Americans jumping from 36 million (12.2%) in 2007 to 49 million (16.4%) the next year. Americans with very low food security numbered 12 million households in 2007 (4%) and jumped to 17.3 million (5.8%) in 2008. The number of food insecure Americans reached a peak in 2009 with 50.2 million people (16.6% of the total population) experiencing some level of food insecurity. Since this peak in 2009, the percentage of Americans in food insecure households has not returned to pre-recession levels (12-13% from 2000-2007), with the number of food insecure Americans in 2014 numbering 10 million more than a decade before, showing a 26% actual increase over 2004.

The prevalence of food insecurity varies greatly by state and region within the United States. The state which experienced the lowest level of food insecurity in 2014 was North Dakota, with 8.4% of households reporting insecurity. Mississippi was the state with the highest instance of food insecurity, with 22% of households reporting insecurity. The American Southeast was the most food insecure region, while the West and Upper Mid-West were the most secure regions.

Food insecurity and access to nutrition

Hunger and access to poor nutrition in the United States, as in most countries, is not due to a shortage of food, nor is global hunger due to global food deficit. As discussed in a previous Euromonitor piece, the USDA ERS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that in 2010, 31%, or 60 billion kilograms, of food available in retail (not including farm to retail) went unconsumed. Food insecurity and hunger is a result of a lack of financial resources of individual consumers. That is, there is abundance of food at the grocer, but that abundance will end up in a landfill rather than in the mouths of consumers if consumers cannot afford to pay.

Contrary to the correlation between poverty and low weight that existed throughout history and is still prevalent in many countries around the world, poverty in the United States is a primary cause of obesity. This correlation exists not only because highly processed calorie dense food is cheaper than fresh, nutritious food, but because when a person is food insecure, she is more likely to reach for a more calorie dense meal with the rationale that it will provide more sustenance for her dollar. Although the reasoning that a Big Mac is more calories per dollar than fresh vegetables, for example, is correct, the combination of fat, salt and sugar in fast food has been shown to highly addictive and will not prove to be as sustaining as less processed foods. Moreover, the Big Mac will end up costing the consumer more than she initially saved in externalities such as medical cost associated with poor health.

Another reason poverty and obesity are closely tied is widespread lack of access to nutritious food. This lack of access is explained by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the phenomenon of food deserts, defined as “urban neighbourhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access, or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores which offer few healthy, affordable food options.” The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts. Even outside of regions officially designated by the FDA as food deserts, low-income areas are on the whole much more likely to lack full-service grocery stores and contain only low-cost fast food restaurants. Moreover, low-income individuals are more likely to lack access to a car, and in areas of poor public transportation, access to healthy food is even more of a challenge. Even when available, healthy food is generally more expensive due to the transportation costs inherent in shipping fresher food, as opposed to heavily processed packaged food laden with preservatives.

Recession rebounded for many, not all

According to Euromonitor data, per capita consumption of Fresh Food has declined from 256 kg per capita in the US in 2007 to 249 kg per capita in 2014, a decrease of 3% by volume. Spending on packaged food increased from US$1,005 per capita in 2007 annually to US$1,120 per capita in 2014 in current terms. Annual spending per capita on consumer foodservice has increased during this period from $1515 in 2007 to $1588 in 2014 in current terms.

What this data paints is an America where, since the beginning of the recession, increased prevalence of restaurant dining and packaged food consumption has replaced consumption of fresh foods, on an albeit small extent on a national level. The increased spending per capita on consumer foodservice and a commensurate increase in the consumer foodservice market has signalled to many an end to the recession, with more Americans affording to go out rather than eat in.

However, these statistics coupled with the USDA ERS survey on food insecurity, point not to a recovery from the recession that has benefitted all Americans, but a widening disparity between those able to afford food and those who are food insecure. While many economic indicators such as GDP, unemployment, and the stock market show positive degrees of recovery from the recession of 2008, 26% more Americans are food insecure in 2014 than 2007. The difference in the number of food insecure Americans at the depths of the recession is only 1.9 million more than the number of food insecure Americans in 2014, while the prerecession food insecure population is about 10 million less than that of 2014.

Future impact

Prevalence of food insecurity in the United States is very much tied to the economic well-being of low-income Americans. The negative effects of food insecurity such as obesity, diabetes, lower life expectancy, and developmental disorders among children are well known.

There are several government initiatives which may serve to mitigate food insecurity in the future. One is the recently announced initiative by the USDA and EPA to reduce food loss by 50% by 2030. The agencies have mentioned plans of partnering with public and private sector entities to combat loss, as well as working with religious groups. If the initiative includes more even distribution of unsold and unconsumed food, Americans now unable to afford safe and nutritious food may have better access to these goods in the future.

Another government move that may ultimately serve to mitigate food insecurity is continued de-emphasis on sugar and sugary drinks. The FDA plans to make labelling added sugar mandatory on nutrition labels. This will serve to educate Americans about the dangers of sugary drinks, and could be first step towards initiating an increased tax on sugary drinks and/or products high in added sugars, as many countries have already done. Such a tax would be a small step in reversing the cost disparity between unhealthy and healthy foods.

However, there is a significant government move which will significant harm food security in the US. In January 2016, 40 total states agreed to implement a 1996 welfare law which would limit government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to unemployed childless, non-disabled adults. The change is expected to take away SNAP benefits for between 500,000 and 1 million Americans. 61% of food insecure Americans had used SNAP benefits within a month of participating in the 2014 survey. The change will likely exacerbate the nation’s food security for the coming year.

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