Why Is Food Security So Difficult?

The amber waves of grain in the US Midwest may be referred to as ‘the bread basket of America,’ but a whole of people are going hungry right now, more than ever before. With the crash of the economy has come skyrocketing rates of food insecurity, and a host of other issues along with limited access to food. We are living in a culture where people are going hungry, and hunger is not always readily apparent, and this raises larger questions about why we are failing so intensely when it comes to food security and protecting our population from hunger.

Food insecurity isn’t always about obvious hunger; the issue isn’t necessarily that you can’t afford to eat at all, but that you are not getting enough food, or that you are not getting the right kind of food. For example, in urban areas, plentiful food may be available, but people can still be missing key nutrients because they don’t have access to a balance of foods. This is not as simple as how many calories people are consuming. You can eat a high calorie diet and still not be getting adequate nutrition, and that’s going to have an impact on your health.

In the midst of scaremongering over the ‘obesity epidemic’ in the United States, there’s a lot of very simplistic language about food and calories in, calories out. Much of this doesn’t acknowledge the fact that you can be fat and hungry, that you can be fat and nutritionally deficient, that in focusing solely on how fat is bad and evil and wrong, we miss the larger picture of what hunger really is, and what kind of nutrition people need to survive. This is an especially acute issue with children. Fat kids have been vilified in the US media, which relishes stories about how they’re what’s wrong with the US, but what those fat kids need isn’t shaming and hatred.

Children are especially nutritionally sensitive because they’re still developing physically, cognitively, and emotionally. When they don’t get the nutrients they need, they can experience problems with development that will have long-term impacts; their bones may be damaged, for example, or they can experience cognitive delays that make it hard to succeed in school. Nutritional deficiency cannot be measured by size alone. While the classic image of hunger and food insecurity is of a gaunt person with projecting bones and sunken eyes, fat people can be hungry too, and can experience a variety of physical and cognitive problems related to lack of nutritional support.

Addressing hunger shouldn’t be difficult in the United States. While the country has a large population, it also has a lot of farmland, and a high amount of food in production. That food is going somewhere, but the paths it takes often wind far from the stomachs of the people who need it. Many of the cereal crops grown in the US, for example, are going to feedlot livestock and to fuel production; ethanol corn production has spiked, which means there’s less corn for people (and animals) to eat. Meat is getting expensive because of the rise in cost for grain production, limiting access to one form of protein, while produce isn’t reaching many communities, and when it does, it is sometimes of poor quality and in bad condition.

While we have a network which allows for the rapid distribution of a wide range of products and services, we cannot seem to achieve market penetration with fresh foods, like the fruits and vegetables that would provide the nutrients people need to survive. The industrial agriculture lobby is pushing its own agenda, promoting the production of packaged food products, which sell at a higher price-point, but don’t necessarily offer needed nutrition. What they do offer is convenience, which could easily be structured into the preparation and packaging of fresh food, but isn’t.

In a classic example, an experiment with premixed salad greens and prechopped vegetables in corner stores went over like gangbusters in urban areas where people lacked access to fresh food. People wanted these products but hadn’t had access both to the food and the time needed to prepare it. When it was made available, they seized the opportunity. Yet, because fresh food requires more careful handling and has a shorter shelf life, it’s not as profitable, so industrial agriculture isn’t heavily invested in producing and promoting it. Consequently, the people it’s supposed to be serving with food are missing out on opportunities.

Yet, it’s individuals who are vilified for not ‘eating right,’ for having health problems related to nutritional deficiencies and lack of access to a stable, safe, and diverse food supply. Children are going to school hungry because their parents have no money, and their parents are blamed for being poor parents. Fat folks are struggling to access foods that make their bodies feel good, and they’re told that they should just eat less/exercise more/get surgery to be less fat, when that’s not actually the underlying problem.

The problem for so many is food insecurity, and uncertainty about where the next meal is coming from and whether it will contain what they need. This is not an issue that can be fixed by blaming individuals for systemic institutional problems; the people at fault here are those in a position of power structuring the policy and creating the products that contribute to what people can buy, where, and when. Why is it so difficult for the government to step back and take a holistic approach to food security than includes promotion of better access to food when people are clamouring for it, but don’t have the clout to influence the corporations that ultimately decide their menus?