Junkfood Science: Remembering those less fortunate

November 27, 2008

Remembering those less fortunate

Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks for our blessings. It’s also a good time to remember those whose tummies aren’t full of turkey and all the fixins, who find themselves alone and who don’t have enough to eat.

The latest Household Food Security in the U.S. 2007 report from the U.S. Economic Research Service revealed that the percentage of food insecure households in the United States have remained stable over the past decade, but those with hunger (now called “very low food security”) have steadily crept up — rising by one-third since 1999. Just over 4% of households experienced hunger in our country in 2007.

[The food insecurity data collection methods and survey periods were standardized since 1998, so early data is unable to be compared.]

According to the report, hunger and food insecurity is intermittent for only 25% of these households, experienced for one to two months of the year. For most, hunger is recurring and experienced for three or more months of the year, and for one-third it is chronic and suffered nearly every month.

How has hunger been defined for decades? According to the Government’s 2002 Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report, Economic Research Reducing Food Insecurity in the United States: Assessing Progress Toward a National Objective:

Hunger, as measured in food security assessments, refers to “involuntary hunger that results from not being able to afford enough food.”

Hunger and food insecurity mean people are suffering and it has far reaching health consequences. The health; mental, physical growth and emotional development; and futures of children are jeopardized. There are also severe health implications for the elderly. The medically-documented consequences for all ages include fatigue, functional decline and diminished mental acuity, delayed wound healing, impaired immune system and increased risks of infection, exacerbated chronic and acute illnesses, depression, loss of muscle strength, falls and increased fractures, longer hospital stays, higher rates of complications and rehospitalization, significantly higher healthcare costs and higher mortality rates.

According to Healthy People 2010 objectives, food security means adequate nourishment and is defined as assured access by all people at all times to enough food for active healthy lives.”

This latest Food Security report described those who are hungry in our country. Once again, the single biggest reason for hunger and food insecurity was poverty, and was most prevalent among single-parent households, elderly living alone, and among Hispanic and Black minorities. The more that households are able to spend on food, the more food secure they are. Rising food prices mean more households are unable to purchase enough food and food insecurity increases. The greatest reductions in food insecurity and hunger happen as a result of economic growth, with its concurrent improvements in employment and incomes, according to the Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report.

The relationship between food security and various food assistance programs is complicated, since it is hoped these programs reduce hunger. As a result of government assistance programs, “just over half of food stamp households, 47% of households that received free or reduced-cost school lunches, and 42% of those that received WIC were food insecure,” said the report.

Considerably higher numbers of people living in households with food insecurity and hunger, however, turn to private charitable services than utilize government programs (53.4% are on food stamps, 46.7% of children are getting reduced school lunches, 41.5% of pregnant women and children are on WIC). More go to food pantries (69.2%) and emergency kitchens (70.1%). These figures for those turning to food pantries and soup kitchens don’t include the homeless, which raise the importance of charities. The disabled make up the largest segment of the homeless and the greatest numbers of homeless are in urban areas.

Food insecurity and hunger vary considerably from state to state, but the report highlighted: “No state registered a statistically significant decline in very low food security [hunger].” The states with the highest rates of food insecurity and hunger were Mississippi (17.4%), New Mexico (15%), Texas (14.8%) and Arkansas (14.4%) .

While in most food insecure homes, the children are protected as much as possible, about 323,000 households (0.8%) have had to reduce the food for one or more children. The older children in a household are affected to the severest effects of food insecurity as adults try to protect the youngest.

The highest percentage of food insecure and hungry households in our country were reported to be in principle cities. To complement this information, we turn to the latest U.S. Conference of Mayors report, A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities: A 23-City Survey, which had assessed hunger and homelessness in America’s cities during 2007. None of the cities were in states with the highest rates of food insecurity and hunger, but were those of the 1983 mayoral Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. They also found that the major causes of hunger in cities was poverty, along with unemployment and high housing costs.

A full 90% of hunger was attributed to poverty.

Eight out of ten cities reported that requests for emergency food assistance had increased, an average of 10% just in the past year. Requests for emergency food assistance had increased the most among households with children (79%). Elderly were next with a 62% increase in need. These figures are precisely what were described several years ago when Melody Wattenbarger, Executive Director of Roadrunner Food Bank in New Mexico said that “over one-half of the increase we see are the most vulnerable of our community – children and seniors.”

Most of the mayors reported that demand for emergency food assistance increases during the winter months or during the summer when children were out of school and access to school-based meal programs is more limited.

More than two-thirds of the cities reported that they were unable to meet the demands for emergency food assistance last year. An average of 17% of people who needed emergency food assistance did not receive it; 15% of households with children who needed help didn’t receive it. In Los Angeles, alone, more than two out of ten people coming to food banks had to be turned away.

All responding cities reported that they expected requests for emergency food assistance to continue to increase in 2008.

To find your local food bank for assistance or to make a much needed donation over the holidays and throughout the coming year, see the Food Bank Locator or Food Bank Directory.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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