When people think of the USA, normally they think of excess, opportunity and wealth. However, I was recently surprised to find that, despite living in a first-world nation, we seem to have a growing third-world problem: food insecurity. The state of being ‘food insecure’ exists when an individual’s or a household’s access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources, or alternatively if there is limited access to healthy food outlets (Google: food deserts).[i] [ii] [iii] In 1995, when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its initial report on US household food security, approximately 11.9% of households experienced food insecurity.[iv] As of 2008, that number has increased to 14.6%. This is equivalent to 1 in 7 households — kind of a big deal. Characteristics of food-insecure households tend to be low-income, ethnic minorities, and female-headed.[v] Moreover, these households also tend to have a higher prevalence of diet-related diseases, since their lack of food alters their food-seeking behavior. This leads to consumption of foods that are high in energy density but are nutritionally poor (aka junk food). Furthermore, since food is limited, when these families do eat, they tend to overeat or consume foods they dislike to make up for lost time. What is truly ironic is that, in some studies, the highest levels of obesity were found among persons reporting the most severe categories of insecurity.[vi] Hence, in many ways, obesity is related to the body being starved of proper nutrition.
What hit closer to home for me is the problem of hunger in the five boroughs of New York City. The US Census Bureau reports that 20% (1.5 million people) of NYC’s population live below the federal poverty level ($18,000 a year for a family of three). 92% of those who use soup kitchens and food pantries have yearly incomes of less than $25,000. Combine this with the fact that the price of food is going up (as is the cost of everything in and around NYC), and we have a massive problem. Some more troubling stats:
- The NYC households using the food stamp program receive, on average, $147 dollars a month. More than half run out of funds after two weeks (so no one is living it up at Pathmark).
- 47% of NYC households with children reported difficulty affording food in 2009.
- 27% (just slightly greater than 1 in 4) of children in NYC live below the federal poverty level.
- In 2007, about 400,000 children were served by soup kitchens and food pantries; this nearly a 50% increase from 2004.
These numbers are depressing. As many of you know, I am a staunch opponent of any form of government/state money to solve this problem. That does not mean I am against helping those in need (I am strongly in favor, in fact) but the able-bodied and charitable people in society who have the means to do so can lend a helping hand themselves. We each have the power to assist our brothers and sisters in need without any bureaucratic interference.
So what can you do?
Any internet search for food bank/food pantries/soup kitchens in your area will put you on the right track. I strongly advocate staying local, as you will be able to directly observe the fruits of your labor in or near your own neighborhood. For those ready to work, most are always willing to accept volunteers and, for those ready to spend, you can generally donate funds or the food itself.
I personally have found the experience with the Food Bank of New York (http://www.foodbanknyc.org) very enriching. This organization’s reach is limited to NYC, but they have a multitude of helpful programs available. They store and distribute more than 60 million pounds of healthy food every year to each of the five boroughs through a citywide network of more than 1,000 schools, food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, after-school programs, daycare centers and more. They also provide nutrition education programs in schools to foster healthy eating and lifestyles, as well as income support services (food stamps and tax assistance) and direct assistance to Our Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem, which together provide more than 50,000 free meals each month. You can give a one-time or a recurring donation to the Food Bank online or via the mail. And, yes, the donations are tax-deductible.
The most direct and cost-effective route is to log onto the Food Bank’s website and find the outreach center closest to you. The name, address and phone number of the person in charge of the site is provided. Give them a call, visit the locale, and find out what their specific needs are, so that you can tailor your charitable attack plan. Some centers need money to buy more food to feed more people; others have enough food but are looking for more variety (i.e. more diverse and fresh produce); some just need the muscle to unload weekly deliveries, while others need expertise in day-to-day activities such as book-keeping and website maintenance. Most local outreach centers have mechanisms in place to make a donation to them directly, if you would prefer to target a specific site near your residence. Any way you look at it, there is a need that you will be able to meet. Happy giving! John 4:36-38
Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal
[i] Nord, M., Andrews, M. S., & Carlson, S. (2009). Household food security in the United States, 2008. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
[ii] Freedman, D. A., & Bell, B. A. (2009). Access to healthful foods among an urban food insecure population: Perceptions versus reality. Journal of Urban Health, 86(6), 825–838.
[iii] Larson, N. I., Story, M. T., & Nelson, M. C. (2009). Neighbor- hood environments: Disparities in access to healthy foods in the US. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1), 74–81.
[iv] Nord, M., Jemison, K., & Bickel, G. W. (1999). Measuring food security in the United States prevalence of food insecurity and hunger, by state, 1996–1998. Washington, D.C.: US Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
[v] Holben, D. H. (2006). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food insecurity and hunger in the United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(3), 446–458.
[vi] Tayie, F. A., & Zizza, C. A. (2009). Food insecurity and dysli- pidemia among adults in the United States. Preventive Medicine, 48(5), 480–485.