By Anastasia Tsekeris
In a country that is known to be the wealthiest in the world, American citizens are struggling more and more to access healthy, fresh foods. The USDA defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods…or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
The USDA found that 12.3 percent of U.S. households—15.6 million—identify as food insecure. This issue affects millions of Americans annually, especially including minority groups, veterans, senior citizens, and children. One of the largest initiatives to aid in this issue is Feeding America, which is a network of food banks and pantries across the nation working to feed those struggling to access foods. Although this program is great, we must do more.
The reason why food banks cannot save our food insecure neighbors is a complex one that must address legislative action. Food banks utilize a charity model, which depends on food being donated in order to be distributed to those in need.
Although I do not oppose charity, feeding Americans should not be dependent on the kindness of companies or the redirection of food waste. Food insecurity needs to be addressed in policy in order to truly fix the issue in a macro-scale, sustainable approach. Food banks and pantries are meant to be an emergency fix. When a family is hungry or runs out of food, they can go to their food pantry and pick up what they need. Unfortunately, food banks and pantries have become a necessity rather than a last minute resort. Feeding America found that 1 in 7 Americans rely on food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves. This is unacceptable.
In order to implicate long-term change, we need to begin to focus our policy around eradicating food insecurity. President Trump recently proposed budget cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) under the Farm Bill, which includes possible drug testing for participants, and even increasing work hour requirements for able bodied participants. What this possible change would do is put food insecure citizens at risk for receiving less federal aid in buying food. Considering that the average SNAP participant receives only $1.40 per meal, this is not a risk we can afford to take.
But food insecurity is not simply an issue of food policy, it is one that is affected by many sectors of legislation. A recent survey performed by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that more than one third of college students lack stable housing and do not have enough to eat.
The cost of education is booming as the average public college tuition currently hovers around $20,000. Because of this, we have students choosing books over dinner and stealing extra food from the dining hall to sustain themselves. Being hungry is not only devastating to child development, but also negatively affects performance, therefore putting students who face hunger at an extreme disadvantage.
Feeding America also found that 66 percent of households choose between medical care and food every year. Being hungry can have negative effects on health, especially for pregnant women, children, and senior citizens. In a country where we acknowledge obesity as being an epidemic, when will we acknowledge that being hungry is the leading cause of it?
The cheapest foods are often the least healthy, loaded with fat, sugar, and sodium. Food insecure households have to turn to fast food joints to access a cheap meal that will fill their bellies until they find their next source of calories. Food insecurity and obesity are undeniably connected—and with medical care costs rising, we are doing little to aid in this growing problem.
When studying food insecurity and food systems issues, we must utilize an interdisciplinary approach. This issue crosses boundaries—interacting with education, healthcare, and too many more sectors to mention in just one op-ed. I hope in reading this you feel urged to educate yourself on the many issues our current policies implement. I’m not telling you to stop volunteering at food shelves, but also begin to send letters to your representatives, protest harmful legislation, and keep up on current politics that have widespread implications.
Until we can change those policies, food banks will continue to be a temporary band aid on an incredibly painful epidemic.
-Anastasia Tsekeris is pursuing a degree in Food Systems and Nutrition and Food Sciences at UVM. She has had experience interning with local organizations in Burlington, Vermont, performing outreach, distributing free meals through a federal service, and working in food service. She is passionate about eradicating food insecurity and empowering consumers through food.