America’s Diverging Food Streams

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By: Connor Harron, Samantha Gailey and Richard Matthew

 

Today nearly 50 million Americans lack access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their daily dietary needs. They are part of the 1.6 billion people on the planet living in a condition of chronic food insecurity. Addressing this challenge at home and abroad is the focus of a wide range of research, innovation and education activities across the University of California system, including two major events hosted by UCI’s Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation. In November 2015, the “Global Food Summit: From Crisis to Security,” brought together California leaders, practitioners and researchers to discuss sustainable solutions for addressing the challenge of food insecurity regionally. A much larger event, mobilizing the entire UC system and considering the challenge from a global perspective, takes place on May 5-6, 2016, also at UCI.

 

One of the most important themes that emerged during the November 2015 conference focuses on how rising inequalities in income and food accessibility, coupled with inadequate government food assistance programs, have led to two separate, and drastically different, food systems for the haves and have-nots. While many American households struggle with food insecurity and often rely on charitable donations and inexpensive foods to make ends meet (which are typically high in fat and sodium, and heavily processed), high income families enjoy unprecedented knowledge about and access to healthy foods, supported by extensive food and nutrition research as well as local food and organic movements. The implications of this inequality are wide-ranging and alarming For example, a 2016 study by Stanford professor Raj Chetty et al shows a significant gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor in the U.S., and identifies access to nutritional food as one of the factors contributing to this gap.

 

Ironically, the challenge of food insecurity is often not due to a shortage of nutritious food, but rather is the result of inequalities in income that affect everything from access to nutritious foods to adequate education about nutrition. For example, over 23 million Americans live in ‘food deserts’, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” Over half of these people live below the poverty line. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities tend to depend on fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. Parents in food deserts face stark choices, like feeding a hungry child with a bag of chips or traveling 10 or 20 miles to obtain fresh fruit.

 

Further undermining food security is the fact that nearly 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten–some $165 billion wasted annually, or enough food to feed all of the Americans experiencing food insecurity and 110 million other people. Producing more food is often far less important than ensuring that less ends up in landfills.

 

Much of the focus of the events hosted at UCI is on solutions to food insecurity. In November 2015, many participants argued that any strategy to address hunger and food insecurity in the long run will also have to address the livable wage challenge. Today 70% of food insecure households in the United States have at least one full time working adult in the home. But much full-time work no longer puts food on the table. Low wages in the face of inflation force individuals and families to make difficult trade-offs between things like shelter, medicine and food. For example, Laura Fisher, the Executive Director of South County Outreach, reported that average rent in Orange County, CA is now over $1,800 a month, far beyond the capacity of a minimum wage earner, who earns just over $1400 a month.

 

Poor nutrition leads to health problems that impose costs far beyond an individual or family. According to another participant, Janet Poppendieck, the author of “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” the inferior food system upon which the poor depend funnels a steady stream of cheap, processed, long lasting, and calorically dense foods into their homes. Over time this diet manifests as obesity, a major concern for public health in the U.S. and many other countries. According to Poppendieck, the cost of addressing food insecurity is a worthy investment when considering the cost of treating resultant health outcomes, such as obesity and/or diabetes, as well as co-morbidities and lost productivity — even brief stints of hunger during early stages of development can have long lasting implications for emotional and cognitive development. When accounting for these factors, Poppendieck reports, some estimates place the true cost of food insecurity in the US as high as $167 billion per year.

 

In the documentary film, “A Place at the Table,” Poppendieck concludes that although we “have a huge stigma for how Americans are supposed to eat together at the table… no one talks about what it takes to get you there or what’s actually on the plate.” On May 5-6, 2016, this discussion continues at UCI, with a wonderful group of experts including Mark Bittman (New York Times), Sally Rockey (Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research), Hilal Elver (United Nations), researchers from across the UC system, and practitioners from various non-governmental organizations and government agencies such as USAID.