Though COVID-19, healthcare reform, crime, and the economy may take precedence in the minds of many voters, food insecurity remains a persistent issue, affecting 35 million Americans–including more than 10 million children.
The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food” – a wide-ranging definition that includes more than just hunger. Food insecurity manifests in a wide range of ways: reduced variety or quality of food, disrupted eating patterns, or even reduced total intake.
Food insecurity brings with it numerous adverse effects, such as an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Children who suffer from food insecurity also generally tend to experience developmental delays and academic underachievement. Furthermore, food insecurity carries a financial burden in medical expenses for diet-related illnesses. The looming danger of food insecurity increases when considering the scale: 10% of American families experience food insecurity–including more than a third of all low-income households.
From the perspective of an individual, poverty is the primary driver of food insecurity. Simply put, individuals with limited financial resources are less likely to afford higher-quality, nutritious foods and instead rely on highly-processed foods that come at a lower cost. Additionally, they may not have the time or resources to regularly venture to a grocery store, instead using more convenient (and less nutritious) options.
Alternatively, the grocery store might possibly not be around at all. Poverty’s role is compounded in the form of food deserts. The rules of the market dictate it: when a community lacks the means to financially support a business (in this case, a store with quality food), the business just won’t show up. For this reason, many low-income areas lack the same access to grocery stores that wealthier areas enjoy: Out of Chicago’s nine Whole Foods locations, only one is on the South Side– in Hyde Park, a diverse and relatively affluent neighborhood. And with the recent closure of a Whole Foods Market in Englewood, the market’s message becomes clear: access to healthy food is a privilege.
Food is a basic human right; moreover, access to healthy food at a reasonable cost also must be treated as a right. Food banks, community gardens, and nonprofits all help to secure food for impoverished communities, but further work is necessary and by the hands of the only power large enough: the Federal Government. While government assistance in the form of SNAP and School Lunches might be commendable, these policies don’t go as far as they could and aren’t as secure as they should be. Furthermore, SNAP benefits mean nothing if they can’t be utilized to their fullest potential. By expanding subsidies, the government can incentivize grocery stores in communities where they wouldn’t otherwise be established. After all, the federal government is already involved in agricultural subsidies– why not utilize that power to increase the prevalence of cheap, accessible, unprocessed foods?
While food insecurity is a complex, multifaceted problem, a fundamental issue lies at the core: the market’s forces put a basic necessity out of reach for too many families. While community-based efforts are admirable, perhaps the only way to fully alleviate this market-based problem is through a market-based solution. Nevertheless, we will only alleviate this nationwide issue with a relentless concerted effort.