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Why do we have hunger in the U.S.?

One in eight Americans struggle with hunger. That's 42.2 million people, among them 13.1 million children. Many children wake up in the U.S. and face an empty refrigerator. In California, 13.5 percent of all households are classified as food insecure, although California is below the national average.

We indeed have abundant food in the U.S., so why does hunger persist? As a dietitian, I am very aware of the long-term effects of hunger. I recently took part in an interactive exhibit on wheels by MAZON, a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds. We still have hunger, MAZON says, because "we lack the political will to end the problem by ensuring that vulnerable people have equal access to nutritious food."

This is Hunger exhibit.

The community engagement program, "This is Hunger" is housed in a trailer, in stark contrast to the shopping areas of nearby Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, is inspired by Jewish values and ideals. The exhibit was on the road for 16 months, visiting dozens of cities around the country. The goal is to illuminate and advocate, toward "rallying the political will to end hunger" and food insecurity. The exhibit succeeds in showing the shocking prevalence of hunger in the U.S.

What does it mean to be food insecure? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as "limited or uncertain access to adequate food." The result of food insecurity is often hunger, an individual's physiological condition. To classify a household as food insecure, household members answered yes to a number of questions, among them the following.

  • In the last 12 months, did you or other adults in the household ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No).

  • In the last 12 months did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No).

  • In the last 12 months, did any of the children ever skip a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food? (Yes/No).

Food-insecure households are further classified in a severe range, as very low food security. In these households, 14.6 million people reported the following:

  • 97 percent reported that the food they bought just did not last and they did not have money to get more.

  • 95 percent reported that they could not afford to eat balanced meals.

  • 33 percent reported that an adult did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.

Hunger can be invisible, just like hypertension and other diseases. The exhibit emphasized that we stigmatize hunger but not the visible effects of starvation. Or, we may believe that people deserve social security benefits, but are not entitled to benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Why the difference? A prevalent myth is that those people are lazy or made poor choices.

Sign says Hunger Lives Among Us and Doesn't Have To.

In California, CalFresh (federally known as SNAP) offers monthly food benefits to assist low-income households in purchasing food to maintain adequate nutritional levels. Eligibility for CalFresh assistance and the benefit amount, is based on household size and income. Now, many farmers’ markets across the state accept CalFresh. In the Market Match program, if your household includes children up to 5 years old, funds are matched up to $10 at participating farmers markets.

But the average SNAP benefit is $1.40 per person, per meal. For a family of four with two children, a meal should be under $5.60. When I told my undergraduate nutrition students that amount, they shook their heads in disbelief. How nutritious is that meal? And would you want to eat that meal?

There have been gains, as 2.5 million fewer people—and 1.2 million fewer children—lived in poverty in 2016. Additionally, food insecurity can be recurrent but not chronic. However, there are lifelong physical and emotional consequences for children growing up in poverty.

Hungry people should look a certain way.

Among the many myths about poverty in America is the belief that hungry people have a certain look. But they can be any size and any weight. The food they can afford are often of low nutritional value. They have higher levels of stress, less time and opportunities for physical activity, and their neighborhoods may not be safe for walking, or do not offer parks for children.

Military families face unique challenges. We don't pay the military enough or provide necessary benefits. Eligibility doesn't reflect their day to day experience. For example, housing allowance is capped at income, despite local high housing costs. There is a food pantry on or near every navy or marine base in the U.S.

Seniors may be affected by their health. Among food insecure seniors, 40 percent are more likely to experience congestive heart failure.

Hunger in America sign.

The most moving part of the exhibit were the quotes from people living in this invisible hunger population. Here are a few.

I cook to fill me up, not to be healthy. We have to make the food last.

Don't ever think this could never happen to you.

I used to help people with food assistance.

We're skipping meals to feed our baby.

It makes you feel like you're not normal.

Demand that people be held accountable. Get involved. Do something.

Some of these quotes are from children.

Sign about If Not Now, Then When?

What can we do?

We need to do more social justice and charitable efforts to destigmatize hunger. On a practical level, we can educate others about the state of food insecurity in the U.S. Join or promote state advocacy campaigns such as Mazon, at Contribute money to a local food bank or pantry. Help plant a community garden. Volunteer.

Mazon is set to house the exhibit in a permanent space this summer. "This Is Hunger" will be parked in Encino, CA. Check their website for updates so you don’t miss this moving event. As one food insecure child said: "Do something."

Quote from a mother who says she feeds her children filling food because of hunger.

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