Is Hunger Really a Problem in U.S.?

Given everything I hear about obesity stats in the U.S. and malnutrition in the developing world, the last thing I was expecting to find in my inbox this morning was a plea to join a Facebook cause to help end hunger in America.  Really?

I’m usually not skeptical in this way, and I’m loath to focus on the negative when it comes to philanthropy, but I can’t get these thoughts out of my head and I’d like some perspective from those who are better informed about the alleged U.S. hunger crisis.  In the mean time, here’s my food for thought:

  • Generally speaking when I get a Facebook cause request it’s from a friend (or a Friend), but this one came from Causes itself: “Please join the Kellogg Company and Causes as we take small steps towards creating BIG change.”
  • When you go to the Causes page it features a giant banner ad for Kellogg and Kellogg as the well-branded sponsor.
  • Then when you go to the website the first thing that catches your eye is an image of this family who supposedly is suffering from hunger:
  • On the Feeding America website I tried to educate myself on hunger facts but all I could seem to find was poverty statistics and stats related to food-related programs (like how many people used food stamps).
  • I understand poverty is a big problem, but unlike in other parts of the world, starving in America is nearly impossible to do.  A friend of mine who works tirelessly to provide meals to homeless admits that the food is just a hook to get folks into a graduated self-sufficiency program.
  • Being malnourished in the U.S., on the other hand, is becoming increasingly easy to do, especially if you eat Kellogg products which have very few nutrients relative to whole foods, particularly veggies and fruit.  Malnutrition in the U.S. manifests itself differently than in poor countries though: obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cancer, et al.
  • I went to Charity Navigator to look into the Feeding America and was surprised to find it gets great marks.  I was even more surprised to find that its revenues are $650 Million per year(!)  And since they have such an incredibly low overhead rate and spend nearly 97% of all money raised directly on programs to feed the hungry, I’m flabbergasted.  Hunger must be a huge and totally unappreciated problem in the U.S. if it can’t be solved with the billions spent trying.
  • Looking at the breakdown of the $650M in revenue from their annual report, $560M of it is from “Donated goods and services”.  Presumably that’s good and efficient.  However I can’t help but wonder how much of that is food grown with subsidies from the government, which then Kellogg writes off against its taxes as an in-kind donation.  Does anyone know whether this is the case?

I expect to be taken to task on this, but isn’t it really just a PR move by big businesses who’d rather give away product rather than feed people farther from home at greater expense (or better yet help them become self-sustaining)?

  • Lana Waggoner

    How are we defining this problem exactly? Are we applying the same starvation standards as, say, Africa? Or are we accepting a poverty level that is ridiculously low for our country’s standard of living? I could be persuaded to define hunger as a problem if we are asking a family to choose between food and reasonable shelter month after month.

    Sure you can get a meal if you live in a box, but if you are working two jobs and are still being asked to sacrifice a decent meal just to be able to keep your kids in a safe environment and have access to passable education and health care then people are likely going hungry on a regular basis. That seems less than acceptable to me.

    I would never under-estimate big business and it’s willingness to buy good publicity by co-opting a social issue. That might not rule out the possibility that they won’t do good as a by-product.

    I really liked your point about the difference between eating and malnourishment by the way.

  • Lana Waggoner

    Here’s an NPR program on the issue…

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5023829

  • Hunger in America, while not full of the drastic scenes of children with distended bellies one might see in Third World famines, is nonetheless very real and very heartbreaking. According to the USDA, 11.1% of households in America (and just over 10% here in our state) experience “food insecurity,” meaning that the family does not always know where their next meal is coming from. 4.1% of households experience “very low food insecurity” (formerly termed “hunger”), meaning that the family goes without food on a regular basis. Those percentages equal a staggering number of people. Over 36 million Americans are food insecure, 12.4 million of them children. Of those people, 8.2 million experience very low food insecurity, 3.7 million of them children. (Please see http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/stats_graphs.htm for more information on the extent of food insecurity and hunger in the U.S.)

    What does hunger look like in America? It might be a family with both parents laid off in the recent recession, who needs to visit a food pantry to make it through the month. It might be a child, who relies on free school breakfast and lunch during the week, but has little to eat on the weekends. It might be a senior choosing between vital medicine and food. It might be a single mother working two low-paying jobs who can’t make ends quite meet. You mentioned a homeless person as an example, and certainly homeless people face problems with hunger. Yet, most of the people reached through our 250 Agency Partners are families struggling to get by. Hunger devastates people is so many ways: the shame of not being able to feed your family, the lack of mental focus that makes it harder to work or find a job, the lasting developmental damage of even just a few episodes of scarcity in a child’s life, the health impacts of eating a cheaper diet, which might make a person feel full but not have the right nutritional balance for health.

    Let me share some research on hunger’s impact on children, quoted from Feeding America: “Studies show that children from food insecure households are likely to fall behind in their academic development compared to other children, making it difficult for them to reach the same level of development as their food secure peers. (Frongillo, E., Jyoti, D., Jones, S. Food Stamp Program Participation Is Associated with Better Academic Learning Among School Children. Journal of Nutrition: 136; 1077-1080.2006.) And children who struggle with food insecurity also have problems with academic performance, tardiness rates, and absenteeism. (Meyers, AF., Sampson AE, Weitzman, M., Rogers, BL., Kayne, G. School Breakfast Program and Performance. American Journal Dis. Children. 1989: 143; 1234-1239.) Research even indicates that children with poor nutrition in the first three years of life show less capacity to learn—and any interruption in nutrition may have lasting effects later on. (C-SNAP, 2006. Nourishing Development: A report on food insecurity and the precursors to school readiness among very young children.) Proper nutrition is vital to the growth and development of children. Even mild under-nutrition experienced by young children during critical periods of growth impacts their behavior, their school performance, and their overall cognitive development.”

    For more information on the connection between hunger and obesity, which you referenced, please see: http://www.frac.org/pdf/Paradox.pdf.

    Finally, I invite you to visit the Three Square Food Bank (www.threesquare.org) in Las Vegas and learn more about local responses to hunger in our midst. We work every day to help Southern Nevadans in need obtain food, through direct distribution and, soon, through outreach regarding the federal nutrition programs as well. We are working in collaboration with 250 Agency Partners, 144 schools, dozens of business and civic groups, and thousands of volunteers, to address the needs of people who are struggling with hunger. I invite you to visit one of our sites to see how real and devastating hunger is, right here in our country. I would also be happy to discuss this topic with you further.

    Sarah Borron
    Advocacy and Research Manager

  • Sarah (and Lana), thanks for your thoughtful and informed responses.

    Given the inextricable link between hunger and poverty, I was really glad to see one of my favorite organizations, Kiva.org, has finally launched in the U.S.

    Sarah, do you think there’s a way for organizations like yours to work closely with Kiva and its ilk to try to break the vicious cycle for the families you see?

  • kevindick

    Meant to respond to this earlier. The large government surveys are about food insecurity rather than lack of adequate caloric intake per se.

    “Very low food insecurity” does not mean that the “family goes without food on a regular basis. ” According to the USDA, it means “at times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food”.

    What you want to know is what this means in terms of actual caloric intake. Jay B has done some research in this area so you should ask him. Here’s what his homepage currently says:

    “This second paper examines how well the answers to food security questions correlate with serum measures of nutritional adequacy and caloric intake. For elderly, food insecurity is a good measure of nutritional adequacy, but it does not perform as well for children”

    http://www.stanford.edu/~jay/research.html

    The last line of the abstract from his paper is:

    “These results suggest that researchers should be cautious about assuming connections between food insecurity and nutritional outcomes, particularly among children”