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Food & Hunger

14% of Americans have been food insecure. Here's one reason why

Flickr: Kurman Communications, Inc.

It’s widely accepted that increasing food security and nutrition is vital to ending extreme poverty.

What some people may not realize is that food insecurity affects pretty much every nation in the word. Yep, including yours.

Take where I’m from. The United States defines households as “food secure” when they have access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. As of 2013, 86% of households were considered food secure. That means a startling 14%, or 17.5 million people in the United States, were food insecure at some point.

This is crazy, right? The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet 1/7 of the population is unable to eat well. How is this possible?

One contributor is food deserts.

Food deserts are essentially urban neighborhoods or towns that lack ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of grocery stores and farmers markets, food deserts are plagued with fast food chains and convenience stores filled with unhealthy foods.

Fast food dominates this street in Los Angeles, California. | Image: David McNew, NY Magazine

To some, this might sound like a dream come true- start the day off with a little Dunkin’ Donuts, swing by Taco Bell for lunch, cruise by the convenience store for an afternoon snack, then top the night off with McDonalds. While this might be fun every once in a while, relying on this kind of food has major implications for your health (check out the documentary Super Size Me if you want to see for yourself, but be warned- you may be put off chicken nuggets for life).

While food deserts exist everywhere, research suggests they are far more prevalent in the US than in continental Europe or Australia because “residential segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines”is more pronounced. According to a 2009 study by the USDA, as many as 23.5 million people in the US were located in food deserts, and as you might have guessed, they were far more prevalent among certain demographics (I’ll come back to this in a moment). To get to the bottom of issues like these, Patchwork Nation created an awesome geographic/ demographic breakdown of the US in order to show trends among 12 different types of places (all hilariously named). Here’s what it tells us about food deserts in 2006:

In wealthy, suburban “Monied’ Burbs”, only 1.5 % of the population lived in food deserts. Compare that with “Minority Central” where 5.9% of households did. If that difference doesn’t seem like much, remember that these numbers are averages. In Minority Central communities like Tensas Parish, Louisiana, or Wilcox County, Alabama, the percentages were 17.6 and 18.6, respectively.

Now, here’s why this matters. Studies have shown that food deserts correlate with obesity and diabetes, both serious health issues that are affecting billions of people around the world. Let’s check out the data. 24.4 % of the population living in Monied’ Burbs were shown to be obese, with 8.2 % suffering from diabetes. But in Minority Central, those numbers were significantly higher. On average, 26.2% were considered obese, with 12.2% of the populated afflicted with diabetes.

It makes sense right? Without access to nutritious, affordable food, of course you’re going to load up on the crap that’s available to you, namely processed goods and fast food. Then you’ll likely gain weight, and get sick. Good luck lifting your family out of poverty now that you have those medical bills weighing you down.

Now here’s some good news for us yankees: First Lady Michelle Obama is running an ambitious campaign to fight childhood obesity called “Let’s Move”, and one of the goals is to eliminate food deserts by 2017. To accomplish this, healthy grocery chains are being encouraged to open up shop in food deserts with the promise of zoning and permitting assistance as well as tax incentives.

I, for one, applaud the First Lady for shining a spotlight on this important issue. Through her campaign, she’s sending a powerful message that food security entails more than just access to affordable food- nutrition is just as important.