Food Insecurity in America and How to Solve it

Graphic By The Harlem Food Project

You’re walking through a recently stocked bodega on the corner of 187th Street and Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, New York. You walk past a wall of sodas and the aisles of chips only to find the banana you came for wilting in a cardboard box on the floor. The box happens to be next to the ice cream freezer. Confused? No, this isn’t the beginning of a food-related dystopian short story. This is a real problem that I have personally experienced and that many people living in similarly underserved communities will understand. 

Much of the public (and unfortunately, some of the academic) conversation surrounding the concept of “food deserts” is based on the semantics of the term. Many ordinary people think of a food desert literally as a barren, dry area where little to no food can be found. The truth is that many “supposed” food deserts have plenty of cheap grocery stores and supermarkets. These are often communities where long avenues and large malls are populated with fast-food restaurants. This is the crux of a fundamental misunderstanding regarding how to address this issue: solving food insecurity isn’t the same as solving hunger. Food insecurity, as a sociological phenomenon, differs from hunger in a few core ways; although the former can lead to the latter, there isn’t necessarily a relationship. 

Hunger is a biological condition rather than a sociological one, associated with pangs of pain and the ceasing of bodily functions. Moreover, as opposed to hunger, which is defined as the full-scale lack of food, food insecurity is described by the USDA as when the “access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by lack of money and other resources”. This fact also leads to the seeming paradox in America wherein obesity tracks closely with poverty. But, the focus on the availability of “nutritionally” adequate foods is the reason why some scholars have called for the use of the term “food swamps” rather than deserts. Despite this semantical difference, the broad sociological consensus is that food deserts (places lacking affordable and nutritious food) exist as a phenomenon in America. 

Whatever you want to call it, food insecurity is a real issue with extensive causes and effects. EatNom is committed to feeding and educating people, which is why we have developed a diverse and inquisitive team of partners, contributors, and team. For this same reason, we are going to explore both the problems and solutions associated with food insecurity, and we hope that by the end you’ll feel empowered to help address this issue on a local and national scale.

The Problem and where it Comes from

Data from the USDA suggests that roughly 11 percent of households in America suffer from low and very low food security as of 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that number increases to 13.6 percent in households with children; 28 percent in households with single mothers, and it hits an astronomical high of 34.9 percent in households with income below the poverty line. As anyone familiar with the history of wealth disparities in America knows, insecurities of this kind are going to disproportionately affect black and brown people. This is why James Beard award-winning chef and community activist Karen Washington said in an interview with Guernica that what we refer to as food deserts she prefers to call “food apartheid”: Washington says, “You say ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system…along with race, geography, faith, and economics.” This reference to the racially segregated political environment of South Africa from 1948 to the election of the African National Congress in a controlling seat of parliament in 1994, is not simply a rhetorical flare or semantic quibble: it makes use of a very apt comparison to draw attention to the massive disparity in America between different groups of people. On average, 17 percent of black and Hispanic people experienced food insecurity in 2019 (with nearly half of the black people surveyed experiencing very low security) as compared to the 8 percent of white people who had the same experience. 

Karen Washington points to the unequal treatment of black farmers by the USDA and the American government for an explanation of most of the racial disparity we see. The culinary interests of working class black people were not being met on a societal scale during that time. Food insecurity in America, seems to stem from the development of a highly consumerist culture with a primarily service-based economy. Other high-income nations do not seem to experience the same discrepancies, and obviously lower-income nations have concerns with food scarcity rather than insecurity. 

This problem is only exacerbated by the extremity of austerity politics in America. Despite the overwhelming evidence for disastrous economic inequality, and the studies which show that American’s ability to withstand emergencies has diminished, right-wing and centrist politicians continue to argue over the very existence of a social safety net. The arguments over entitlements are raging strong this week as congress debates the Infrastructure bill. Often Republican and moderate Democrats use cuts to entitlements as political weapons against more progressive policies. SNAP is merely one of those entitlements perpetually placed on the chopping block. But, since these entitlements still exist federally, local governments often take measures to limit people’s access to them, leading to more instability (or at the very least exacerbating it). Why is it, for example, that despite having similar rates of insecurity, New York provides more than double the assistance to its residents than Kansas does to its own residents? It isn’t because Kansas is more rural than New York, since the rates of insecurity between rural areas and cities are identical. The fact is that many of the leading politicians in Kansas are not only uninterested in solving food insecurity, but are sometimes incentivised against it due to their connections to corn producers and agricorps.

The Solutions and How You Can Help

In my hometown of NYC, the number of people experiencing food insecurity increased from 1.2 million people in 2019 to roughly 1.75 million as of the summer of 2020. The city did a lot to address the issue, including take-out meals for kids at schools; but when schools closed, the food wasn’t getting out to the community. The government launched the somewhat controversial, but mostly effective, GetFoodNYC program whereby over 200 million meals were delivered to families across the city. While this program was somewhat helpful, the most effective strategy was the increase of SNAP benefits in the state (partially paid for by the federal government). Please find below a short list of things you can participate in, or things you might be able to organize in your local area in order to help needy communities. 

Provide Funding to Mutual Aid Societies and Food Relief Organizations

There are plenty of mutual aid organizations such as the DSA, around the country, which take donations in order to finance grassroots movements. These movements are where working people help each other, without expectations or judgement. Food relief organizations around the country do something similar, but specifically with food; taking donations from local businesses and providing meals for needy communities.

Build Hydroponic and Production Gardens in Public Areas such as Schools, Parks, and Housing

As we’ve discussed, food insecurity is the result of a lack of healthy and affordable food. Building gardens on public property will not only help the people who live in the community (including the homeless), but it will hopefully create an active agriculture in neighborhoods where the people are often disconnected from the industries which feed them.

Simplify the Enrollment Process for Public Assistance

As discussed, SNAP and WIC, programs designed to put money into working people’s hands for the express purpose of buying food, are constantly in danger of defunding, both nationally and locally. Helping people with food insecurity means expanding the budgets of these programs, but smaller steps could be taken on a local scale as well (which should be easier for you to organize around). It is important that states make the enrollment process easier for working people, including online applications and multiple language translations.