Food insecurity is still a thing

We’re used to hearing about starving people in far-of third world countries going hungry, but food insecurity is still a thing in developed countries. It seems inconceivable even as obesity rates reach epidemic proportions that a percentage of people still can’t access adequate food.

A recent USDA report observed a continued downward trend in food insecurity since the height of the recession in 2011, when around 15% of American households were unable at some point to access “adequate nutritious food” for themselves or others living there. The 2016 data indicates 12% of the population – that’s 15.6 million people fall into the food insecure category.

Despite the economic recovery that is well underway in the US, this measure has been hard to shift. From 2015 to 2016 the national rate of food insecurity dropped from 12.7% to 12.3% – that is not a statistically significant change. Progress against “low food security – when food access is limited by lack of money or resources – is even worse, shifting from 5% in 2015 to 4.9% in 2016. This compares to pre-recession lows of 11% food insecure and 4% low security.

There also seem to be some gaping holes in the country’s food safety net – just 60% of food insecure households have accessed food stamps or programs like SNAP or school lunches, 26.5% accessed food pantries and even less visited soup kitchens (3.5%). Reasons for the low uptake might include shame, lack of knowledge that the services are available, or their ability to physically access them during times of need.

The issues also divides along racial lines within the US. African Americans and Hispanics, as well as city dwellers are far more likely to be food insecure. While there’s been a very slight decrease in insecurity among white households, it’s offset by a proportionately larger rise among African Americans.

A recent look at the latest Food Security Index compiled by the Economist indicates the US is in the top 20 countries for food security. The United Nations estimates the number of people suffering from hunger rose by 38 million to 815 million in 2016. However, when climate is factored in, the US drops from second place behind Ireland to fourth. “Food security is in reverse,” according to Robert Powell, a senior consultant with the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. “If we’re aiming for zero hunger, we’re going in the wrong direction.”

The news for Australia on food security is even more sobering than in the US. Australia ranks number 5 in the top 20 countries for food security, but factoring in climate drops the country to 14th place in the rankings.

Four categories make up the score for The Economist food security index including affordability, availability, quality and safety and natural resources and resilience – a new category added in this year’s analysis. The study places a high value on government support for agricultural research, which is vital for keeping nutrition accessible and inexpensive as requirements increase. Ireland outspent the US in relative terms on public agriculture research and development for the past five years, increasing food production’s share of GDP – even as the economy has recovered.