A nation hungry for change: Food insecurity in the United States

  • Nutrition education should be a top priority in the effort to end hunger.

Former Iowa Governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently led a discussion amongst four other past U.S. Secretaries of Ag — Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman, Mike Johanns and Ed Schafer — at the 2017 Iowa Hunger Summit. Their primary objective was to address a less commonly realized but ever-prevalent issue affecting U.S. citizens: food insecurity.


Some may be asking themselves what exactly the term “food insecurity” means. It is defined as being without consistent access to an adequate supply of reasonably priced, healthy food. And, while it may seem almost inconceivable for such a highly developed country to be dealing with an issue like hunger, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, it’s an unfortunate reality for some 41.2 million Americans living in food-insecure households.


Fortunately, the U.S. has one of the most comprehensive feeding programs in the world, offering the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and National School Lunch Program (NSLP).


Yet, programs like SNAP have no restrictions. People may buy whatever unhealthy options they wish to, and often do. So, the question arises: Should we limit participant options? And, while we’ve come a long way from the days of food stamps and the associated stigmas, many feel that restricting offerings would only serve to further reinforce shame felt by program participants.


Domino effect

According to estimates from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate is roughly 13.5 percent, meaning over 43 million Americans are living on an insufficient income. The nation also sits at a record high obesity rate; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36.5 percent of U.S. adults are considered grossly overweight. It would seem these two issues go hand in hand with the issue of food insecurity.


People are not only undereducated on nutrition but are often unsure how to prepare food. To put it simply, many people don’t know how to cook anymore. Without this knowledge, most seek quick, convenient and often calorie-dense options.


And we are paying a high price for these correlations:

  • Globally, more people are dying of non-communicable diseases (e.g., heart disease and diabetes) than communicable diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity are some of the top reasons for premature death.
  • Obesity is one of the biggest drivers of healthcare costs. In fact, the fastest growing part of the U.S. budget is healthcare. The United States spends an estimated $147 to $210 billion annually on costs associated with preventable chronic diseases.


Focus on nutrition, not just hunger

The panel did seem to collectively agree that nutrition education should continue to be a top priority. The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) was established nearly 50 years ago to help with nutrition and exercise-related behaviors for low-income families, particularly those with small children. SNAP to Health is another example of an effective program aimed at reducing food insecurity and promoting better nutrition for Americans. Additionally, many grocery store chains are now employing dietitians to help consumers make better choices, often at little to no cost.


How agriculture can help

We must continue to be proactive in our efforts to end hunger in this country. Not surprisingly, agriculture will continue to play a critical role. We are making headway with efforts such as the expansion of farmers markets and local food options, more widely available crop insurance and risk management tools, and the establishment of farm-to-school program grants for sourcing local foods. But the hard work can’t stop there. As our population continues to grow and weather patterns shift, we will need to continue to examine new resources, fresh ideas and innovative technologies, all aimed at making food insecurity a thing of the past.


How do you think the future of farming will impact issues like food insecurity? A panel of agribusiness experts recently discussed “Farming the Future” and what it may hold for not only agriculture, but the entire food supply chain.