It’s time to end the misconception that hunger and food insecurity are third-world issues. Here are the facts.
“Finish your dinner. There are starving children in Ethiopia.” Did your parents ever utter that phrase (or something similar) when you were growing up? What was meant as a ploy to help you meet your veggie quota reflected a privileged and misleading point-of-view: hunger is a third-world problem.
In reality, there were probably hungry children in your classroom at school.
What is food insecurity?
The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” In less severe cases, it could mean that a family subsists on fast food, instant noodles, or other cheap, low-quality foods until the next paycheck arrives. Other families might stretch the budget by skipping meals altogether.
Since researchers began to study “food insecurity” (in addition to medically-diagnosed hunger and malnutrition), it’s been clear that the United States has a problem. From 2001 to 2019, the percentage of food-insecure households nationwide never dipped below 10.5%, peaking at nearly 15% during the Great Recession.
In Georgia, food insecurity rates trend higher than the national average. Between 2016 and 2018, USDA data showed that nearly 17% of Georgia households faced food insecurity; while that number may seem high, it had improved by about four percentage points since the recession. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly reversed that progress.
COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity
About 4 in 10 American adults said they would have difficulty covering a $400 emergency expense, according to the Fed’s 2017 Report on Economic Well-Being. The number of people living paycheck-to-paycheck was a statistic that didn’t gain much attention until the 2019 government shutdown when many people’s paychecks stopped coming. Suddenly families who never expected to face hunger found themselves in food lines.
Back then, Bentley University economics professor Dave Gulley predicted, “when the next recession hits, households without liquid assets to tide them over will be in trouble nearly immediately.”
Now, here we are.
As COVID-19’s economic fallout disproportionately affected lower-income households, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that between Nov. 25 and Dec. 7, 2020, 27 million of all adults (13%) reported food insecurity.
Here in Georgia, hunger-focused nonprofits like Action Ministries saw an 800% increase in the need for food assistance. With cash-strapped families forced to make impossible decisions, like paying the rent or buying groceries, the risk of homelessness also increased. An estimated 180,000 families could face eviction when the CDC’s eviction moratorium expires.
A silver lining to 2020: increased awareness and action
The sheer numbers of people struggling with food and housing insecurity amid COVID-19 are mind-boggling and even numbing. But these problems existed before the pandemic. We must ask ourselves: is there an “acceptable” hunger and homelessness rate in one of the world’s wealthiest nations?
In an October op-ed, we wrote that a silver lining to 2020’s challenges is that long-standing societal issues and inequities are finally in the spotlight. We’ve reached a breaking point that demands action.
For our part, HOPE Atlanta has joined together with Action Ministries to build a comprehensive solution to homelessness and hunger. We’ve partnered with MARTA and others to meet struggling people where they are and have seen many organizations innovating and collaborating in new ways.
Even after the pandemic, it will take a village to make food and housing insecurity things of the past. The question is: if you’re among the privileged who has to remind your children to eat (as opposed to struggling to provide food), how will you be part of that change?