A food stamp paradox: Starving isn't the issue — it's access to nutritious foods

Obese, hungry and undernourished: the new face of food insecurity

Published: Saturday, April 28 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Clients wait to apply for the Federal food stamps program on February 10, 2011, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Using surveys, the USDA sketches two layers of food insecurity in American homes: "low food security" (9.4 percent of households in 2010) and very low food security (5.4 percent of households).

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

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    When Jill Warner's husband lost his job as a product manager in 2009 and entered a bout of hard-core unemployment, they and their four children eventually turned to food stamps.

    For the first four months, they had zero family income and received $900 a month in food stamps. "We ate what we wanted," Warner recalls. "And we had plenty of flexibility." She would leave Costco loaded with snap peas, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and fresh meat, and after a busy day she would stop at Papa Murphy's on the way home. Because Murphy's is "take and bake," rather than served hot, she could use food stamps. "Food access was great," she said, "but mortgage, utilities and car payments were another matter."

    After a few months, her husband found entry level work that barely paid the bills, and their food benefit dropped to $500. "That was very tight," Warner said. "We had to compromise and buy more basic foods, and it was a close call."

    Firmly entrenched in middle class habits and attitudes, Warner is not quite the face of American hunger. That would be Matt Damon. "My family's lived in this neighborhood for years," says Damon, playing a serious young man dressed in a white T-shirt and baseball cap as he steps off his front porch in a recent commercial. "Recently things got so tight we had to go to the local food bank for help. I lost a lot of sleep wondering what the neighbors might think. That is, until I saw them there, too." Damon is one of a handful of Hollywood stars in television ads sponsored by Feeding America and the Ad Council.

    The muscle behind America's food banks, Feeding America was listed by Forbes in 2011 as the third largest charity in the United States, just behind the United Way and Salvation Army. Feeding America, which collects and distributes food to the hungry all across the U.S., is also the voice behind the ubiquitous message echoing daily from the radio to the backs of cereal boxes that "1 in 6 Americans suffers from hunger."

    The "1 in 6" number comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the rest of the wording does not. Since 2006, the USDA has dropped the term "hunger" in favor of "food insecurity," a more complicated and accurate concept. The change aims at better scientific precision, according to USDA officials. But it also serves to highlight complicated links between poverty, nutrition, obesity and overall well-being.

    Insecurity or hunger?

    "Those public service announcements come back to haunt me," said Mark Nord, the USDA sociologist in charge of food insecurity data. The people behind the campaign are "people of good will," Nord said, "but if you exaggerate the severity or scope of the problem it doesn't help the cause, as people tend to discount the whole problem."

    This paradox came into sharp focus during the GOP presidential primary, when then-candidate Rick Santorum attacked the food stamp program at an Iowa campaign stop: "If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger problem?"

    As Santorum's comment suggests, the politics of hunger in the U.S. are tightly connected to food stamps. According to the USDA, more than 46 million Americans are now on food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with an average monthly benefit of $133 per person, according to the USDA. In 2008, food stamp participation hovered around 9 percent of the U.S. population. Today, more than 14.5 percent of Americans use food stamps.

    Santorum's jibe hits directly on Nord's concern: The same audience being pounded with hunger campaigns is also being told that the country has a severe obesity problem — and that poverty is tightly linked to obesity. "We are still worried about hunger," Nord said, "but we have shifted our focus more toward quality as nutrition has become a problem."

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