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

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). These categories combined produce the famous "1 in 6" hunger number. But only in the smaller and more severe category is reduced intake a concern.

"Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food access problems," reads a passage in the 2010 USDA Household Food Security report, "but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake." This group often worries about money lasting for food, and often cannot afford balanced meals, but they almost never go hungry. In contrast, the "very low security" group reports a significant decrease in calories consumed.

Survey questions focused on food variety and quality asked respondents to react to statements including "We couldn't afford to eat balanced meals" and "We relied on only a few kinds of low-cost food to feed our children."

Filling in gaps

"The face of hunger has changed," said Ross Fraser, communications director for Feeding America, noting that the popular image of vagrants in soup kitchens is long gone. "Today, only 10 percent of the hungry are homeless." Most food-insecure households have a child, a senior citizen or a disabled person in the household, Fraser said. One third is home to a wage earner, but the worker generally has a job that cannot support the dependents. "They work in gas stations, as security guards or cleaning your hotel," Fraser said.

The behemoth behind most of America's soup kitchens and food banks, Feeding America stocks the agencies and charities that at some point fed 1 in 8 Americans last year. The group pulls in $90 million in cash donations annually, but more than $900 million in food donations.

"People don't starve to death in the United States," Fraser said, "but they do face lack of consistent, adequate nutrition." He describes a cycle that often involves food stamps that run out toward the end of the month, with the last week or 10 days involving severe food uncertainty.

"We have a very strong push to get nutritious food to the people we serve," Fraser said, noting that the organization began as a simple salvage effort, aimed at redirecting materials destined for the dumpster. "But as we've evolved, we find that more and more low-income people regularly rely on our food kitchens and pantries, and we work to ensure that we are getting them nutritious food."

Cheap calories

The problem, according to Julian Moore of the libertarian Reason Foundation, is that the government and food industries that funnel food to Feeding America have their own interests — and nutrition is not high on the list. Many critics have long contended that the Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, is co-opted by the food industry.

This lurking conflict of interest is discernible in Feeding America's food chain. One quarter of its donations generally come from the federal government's agricultural programs, Fraser said, but the rest comes from retailers and wholesalers. Feeding America volunteers find mislabeled or expiring products. They also acquire produce that is too small or oddly shaped for market. But the organization is heavily dependent on the highly processed food products that stock the average grocery store.

The food stamp program is similarly compromised, critics argue. "Buying chewing gum with food stamps is clearly absurd," Reason's Julian Bond said, noting the range of non-nutritious products available with food stamps, from gum to potato chips, candy and cola. Bond blames the paradox of non-nutritive food support on the "bureaucratic nature of the state supplying this safety net," and he cites the vested interests in the food industry that prevent change.

Heather Hartline-Grafton of the Food Research and Action Center says FRAC opposes restrictions on what can be purchased with food stamps. "We have found that food stamps purchases are not really different from the general public, and we are very concerned that limiting choice and creating stigma might reduce participation," she said, adding that FRAC's emphasis is on increasing food stamp benefits to allow better food access, rather than restricting choice.

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