The Growing National Problem That People Don’t Want to Talk About
Fifty million—1 in 6—Americans are food insecure.
For these people, there are times when they're uncertain about having enough food to meet the needs their households. For American children, the number is higher: 1 out of 4. And nearly 1 out of every 2 kids will be on food assistance at some point in their childhood.
This political and moral crisis facing the U.S. is the subject of the recently released documentary, “A Place at the Table.” It looked at the lives of three families struggling with food insecurity, making a strong case that hunger in the U.S. affects more than those who are food insecure.
Hunger is a serious risk for the economic wellbeing of the country, in addition to a basic issue of human rights. A hungry child cannot focus on his or her education. A mother cannot provide adequate support for her children if her main concern is putting food on the table. People can become trapped in the poverty cycle if the majority of their income is devoted to food. And the healthcare crisis in America is primed to grow along with the expanding number of food deserts across the country.
Food deserts, as the documentary explained, are areas where residents lack realistic access to fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that constitute a healthy diet.
A quick glance at the USDA’s new Food Access Research Atlas revealed that large portions of the country are food deserts. As of 2009, approximately 5.5 million households were more than half-a-mile from a supermarket and did not have access to a vehicle. In these food deserts, individuals only have access to small stores that typically provide a unhealthy options, such as chips and soda—usually at a higher price than full-sized grocery stores—but few fresh fruits or vegetables. In most cases, fresh foods aren't available in these areas because suppliers don't deliver to small markets far from major residential areas. As a result of a reliance on foods that are high in carbohydrates and fat, it's common for an individual to be both food insecure and obese.
Beyond the issue of food deserts and poverty leading to food insecurity, oftentimes the biggest challenge food activists face is the stigma surrounding hunger.
Many in the U.S. are uncomfortable discussing hunger in their own neighborhoods. By focusing on three people, the film reveals the human dimension of hunger that is often clouded by budget spreadsheets and partisan political debates.
"Hunger is arguably the most extreme manifestation of poverty," Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Campus Progress.
For low-income students the issue gets more complicated. They're often faced with dropping out of school because they cannot provide for themselves. Berg emphasized that the structure of the country's social programs make it very difficult for college students to get federal food assistance.
"Basically, the way Welfare reform is construed, going to college full-time does not count as work," Berg said.
The story of Barbie Izquierdo, featured in the documentary, underscored the fact that, even with a job, many individuals are unable to provide food for their families. Eight-five percent of families that are food insecure have at least one working adult in the household. Yet, politicians often rely on rhetoric that falsely depicts those that need assistance as lazy.
“We sort of have this love/hate relationship with poverty and the poor. On the other hand, you know, we have a wonderful history of helping others… And we do in many ways, but our care is always predicated on the fact that we’re worried that somebody else is getting something for free or something that they don’t deserve,” said J. Larry Brown, a former chairman of the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America.
This film comes at a particularly important time as the automatic sequester budget cuts, which went into effect March 1, reduced funding for the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food program, cutting aid to 600,000 people. Many of the experts interviewed in the documentary emphasized that the federal government plays a crucial role in the action surrounding hunger. While charities are helpful, they are too small to be able to provide the hunger needs of this country.
"Look, giving the impression you can end hunger with a few more canned-food drives is like giving the impression that you can fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. And… someone said, well you could if you had enough time. And I said, no you couldn’t because the Grand Canyon would erode faster than you’d fill it, and that’s precisely what’s happening with hunger," Berg told Campus Progress.
Jeff Bridges, Academy award-winning actor and longtime hunger activist, summed up the film: “It’s about patriotism really. Stand up for your country. How do you envision your country? Do you envision it a country where 1 in 4 of the kids are hungry?”
In one of the final lines of the film, Izquierdo asked: “Are you aware that I exist?”
Christine Dickason is a Communications Intern with Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @cdickason11.