Impact of Hunger & Poverty on the Health of Communities

According to recently released data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 49 million people in the United States live in food-insecure households, with nearly 16 million of them being children. In other words, 14 percent American households faced difficulty in providing food for their members at some point during the year. There is evidence that as the economic recession and job losses of 2007-2008 hit American families, the problem of household food insecurity dramatically increased by over 33 percent and has remained intractably high ever since. In fact, USDA data indicates that between 2003 and 2007, there were 35.1 million to 38.2 million people living in food insecure households every year. Sadly, the same data shows that from 2008 to 2013, following the worst of the economic recession, the range has been 48.8 million to 50.2 million people.

The National Urban League and Tyson Foods, Inc., selected Nashville as a case study site for research into food insecurity in urban America. The most recent data on food insecurity in Davidson County, TN (which includes the City of Nashville), indicates an overall food insecurity rate of 17.5%, with 110,140 people facing difficulties with obtaining enough food. The County’s child food insecurity rate is 22.4% with over 30,000 children affected. An astonishing 70% of households are income-eligible for federal nutrition programs (incomes at or less than 185% of poverty).

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as the access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. The USDA defines low food security (previously classified as food insecurity without hunger) as reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake. The agency also classifies very low food security (previously classified as food insecurity with hunger) as reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

While the technical classification no longer includes the word “hunger,” both the aforementioned categories most probably include some degree of hunger. It might take the form of one parent participating in our program who has been skipping 2-3 meals per week just to ensure that her children have enough to eat. Moreover, there are other negative consequences of food insecurity, including the consumption of high-calorie, nutrient-poor, energy-dense foods often found in corner stores and fast food restaurants in order to stave off hunger – but which can also lead to overweight or obesity. Obesity and overweight are the most rampant forms of malnutrition in the United States and are closely associated with many forms of chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke as well as a poorer quality of life.

We know from the data that hunger is a significant problem affecting Americans of all backgrounds, but the disproportionate impact that hunger and poverty have on African American households and those of other minorities, as well as rural households, is indisputable. According to data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap 2014 report, of all the counties where a majority of residents are African American, 93.1 percent belong to the highly insecure category. In counties that are majority white, just 6.2 percent belong to that highly insecure group. The most recent data from USDA shows that one in four (26.1 percent) African American households experienced food insecurity in 2013, a significantly higher rate than the national average (14.3 percent) and that among Black households, 15.9 percent faced low food security and 10.1 percent faced very low food security in 2013, the most severe incidence of food insecurity. Sadly, one in three (32.6 percent) of Black households with children faced food insecurity.