During this holiday season it is natural to think of food. While America is supposed to be the land of plenty, about 17% of Americans are food insecure. That is, they sometimes run out of food. About 6% of Americans have very low food security-meaning that they often run out of food.
The main cause for food insecurity is, obviously enough, a lack of money: the food runs out when the money runs out. While some of this could be attributed to poor management of money, most cases would tend to involve simply not having enough money to secure enough food.
While I have never been poor in the true sense of the term, I did live on a very limited income in graduate school. I was careful with my money, but a meager TA salary only goes so far. I never had a car and generally did not even have a phone. I never starved, but I did subsist on such things as Ramen noodles, pasta, rice-puffs and what I could scarf at university events. At the end of the month, I’d sometimes be down to eating bread and peanut butter. As such, I have a great deal of empathy for folks who live with food insecurity.
As the economy continues to limp along, we can expect even more people to end up being food insecure. While the government does provide support (1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps), state support only goes so far. I do know that everyone has stories about how they see “those food stamp” people buying cigarettes and booze, but most people on food stamps seem to be buying food. In any case, even if folks are misusing the system, my main concern is with the fact that so many people are food insecure due to poverty.
At this point, someone is no doubt thinking something like this: “hey, I see on the news all the time that Americans are obese! How can there be so many people who are food insecure when there are so many fatties? Poor fatties, too! I mean, go to Wal Mart!”
This does raise an important point. On the face of it, we seem to be involved in some sort of paradox: we have obese people who are also food insecure. However, a little consideration dissolves the apparent paradox.
One factor is this: cheap foods are often very high in calories. For example, last week I bought a name brand cake mix for $1.97 and a can of frosting for about $2. Hence, people who are short on money will tend to buy cheap foods and these will tend to be high calorie foods and this will put them at risk of obesity.
There are also other health concerns. Unfortunately, being high in calories is not the same thing as being good food. After all, a bag of sugar is high in calories, but having a bowl of sugar for each meal would not be healthy eating. healthy foods, such as lean meats and fresh produce, tend to be more expensive than the cheap, high calorie foods. As such, people who are food insecure tend to not only be lacking in food but also lacking in good nutrition.
One reason why high calorie foods are cheaper is because of government subsidies. For example, big corn growers are heavily supported by Uncle Sam and this means that high fructose corn syrup is very cheap. As such, it tends to end up in a lot of cheap foods. Ironically, the same government that subsidizes unhealthy foods also works hard to educate people about healthy eating.
As I see it, the subsidies should not go to food that is not very healthy. Rather, it would make more moral and practical sense for the state to subsidize nutritional food. After all, if we are going to spend money to make food cheaper, it should be for food that will be good for people. Otherwise, federal money is being spent in a way that contributes to poor health-which then costs the people even more money. By subsidizing healthy food, everyone could be happy: the big food companies get to stay at the public trough and people get to eat better.
Another factor is that foods that taste good to people tend to be those loaded with sugars and fats. These are high in calories and hence tend to contribute to obesity. For example, people like junk food and fast food because they taste good, although they are bad for you. These foods are, in fact, designed to be highly appealing. People with more income still buy junk-but they can also buy better food as well. While I like junk as much as the next person (probably more), it does seem reasonable to push food companies towards designing junk that is actually not junk. That way people would at least get some nutritional benefit from the junk food.
A third factor is food education. Most people do not really understand how to eat well (or exercise) and this would tend to be even more likely in the case of people with lower incomes. After all, they would be less likely to have received education in nutrition and be less likely to keep up with current findings. Of course, even if someone with a low income knew a great deal about nutrition, the high cost of good food would remain a significant factor. While food education can certainly be improved (and has improved), making healthy food more affordable would do far more.
A final factor is, of course, the matter of choice. When I was living on a very limited income in grad school, I was careful to pick the healthiest foods I could afford. I never got obese (of course, training for marathons really helped with that). I would like to think that people would eat better if they could afford it, but maybe this is not the case. Of course, I suppose it would be better to have people who are obese on nutritional diets rather than people who are obese on crappy diets.