Today is World Food Day (WFD), is celebrated each year on October 16 to promote worldwide awareness and action for those who suffer from hunger and for the need to ensure food security and nutritious
diets for all.
It is for all intents and purposes, a day of action designed to promote the need for sustainable food and agroecological practices. Events are organized in up to 150 countries across the world, making it one of the most celebrated days of the UN calendar.
To help better understand hunger in America, we need to take a look at its history and background to learn the causes to help strike at the root of hunger.
For many people, there is joy in thinking about what their next meal will be—leafy greens and fresh cut veggies straight from the farmer’s market or even homemade pasta and meat sauce.
We live to eat, not just eating to live.
What is ‘Food Insecurity?’
However, 1 in every 9 Americans struggle to meet their basic food needs. That equates to approximately 37 million Americans.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “food insecurity” as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It is important to know that though hunger and food insecurity are closely related, they are distinct concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level.
Food insecurity is an ugly reality that has plagued us for far too long. Pushed into the shadows of our collective understanding of what it means to be “American”, there are millions of working families, seniors and veterans who are unable to put healthy food on the table each day and rely on food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens to feed themselves and their families. As a country, we need to agree that no person should go hungry. Access to affordable, nutritious food is a right, not a privilege.
According to a recent survey by the Urban Institute, the most common hardship faced by Americans is food insecurity. A quarter of respondents said they did not have reliable access to a sufficient amount of affordable and nutritious food.
Contrary to popular belief, nearly half of American families who utilize government assistance programs to combat hunger, such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), are employed. They’re trying to make ends meet, living pay check to pay check on a meager minimum wage. There’s little choice when it’s either pay rent or eat.
Let’s agree that something is fundamentally wrong in our nation—the land of great abundance—when 37 million people are left struggling to feed themselves and their families. The prevailing views on hunger are backwards.
Collectively, we celebrate increases in the number of people served at food banks and pantries and look at the number of pounds of food donated as the barometer for success. But more food donations, doesn’t mean less hunger.
Yes, it is vital that people in need can access food immediately and we honor the work that frontline agencies are doing to address people’s immediate hunger crisis. We have the most sophisticated emergency feed system in the world, distributing millions of pounds of food across the country through tireless volunteers and staff at more than 60,000 local pantries, soup kitchens and food banks.
Yet, hunger rates in our country have hovered about 12 percent for decades. Charitable food distribution has its place after a true emergency, but it is not and never will be a sustainable, long -term solution to hunger. Ask the folks, like me, who have been doing this work for decades. We need a new way forward.
So where does the solution lie?
A New Narrative
If we have any hope of eradicating hunger, we need a new narrative. We need to shift our thinking from hunger as the problem, to looking at hunger as a symptom of greater forces at work in people’s lives creating poverty. We need to look at the root causes of hunger if we want to find a real solution. We need to stop thinking in terms of food charity and start to look at the food system through a social justice lens.
We need to direct resources and build capacity at the local level to begin working at the intersections between hunger and racial justice, environmental justice, economic inequality and health equity. We need to address the deeper poverty and inequity at the root of hunger. We need to ask ourselves who we want to be as Americans when we continually tolerate a large swath of the population going hungry.
Let’s start by demanding real, living wages. Let’s agree that everyone who works – from the farmers and farm workers, to the truck drivers and dishwashers – should be able to afford a basic standard of living. Let’s make safe housing, nutritious food, a life of dignity for all our baseline for a strong economy. This will ensure we live up to our value of prosperity for all.
What if all 60,000 local food pantries, soup kitchens and food banks – and their staff, clients and volunteers – banded together to call on their local elected officials to raise wages?
What if they started sharing ideas and models to source healthy food from local farmers and producers, instead of accepting low-nutrient corporate cast offs from the Big Food giants?
What if they started demanding we flip the script on our agriculture system so that it exists primarily to benefit people and planet, not pump out corporate profits and destroy the earth?
These front-line agencies, food justice advocates and even my fellow executive directors at some of the major food banks across the country, are starting to come together to re-imagine a new, community-driven solution to hunger. We are starting to build together, strategize and reclaim power.
Together, we are looking at the quality of food we provide. The very same factors – systemic racism and economic inequality – that lead to hunger are one in the same as those that lead to poor health.
Research shows that people suffering from food insecurity at almost three times more likely to suffer from health problems and develop diet-related disease. We can save trillions of dollars in health care costs associated with diet related diseases when we shift to nourishing foods.
Plus, just think about the potential if all 60,000 emergency food providers followed the lead and used their buying power to support local food and farm economies.
We can invest in small and medium scale farms, farmers, farm-workers, and food businesses whom are enhancing local economies and creating access to more nutritious food. Not only are they mitigating the effects of climate change, but they are also replenishing the land through more sustainable and agroecological farming practices while producing abundant, nutritious food.
We can call on our elected officials to reform our agriculture legal policies, especially tackling subsidies so that they are fair and don’t simply go to support big agribusiness. A comprehensive “Food and Farm Bill” needs to be paramount to fixing our broken food system and creating one that is healthier, more diverse, less concentrated, pays fair wages to farm-workers and is better for our environment.
For many in this growing network of anti-hunger and food justice practitioners calling for change, our collective goal is putting ourselves out of business.
Once we achieve lasting solutions that normalizes access to nutritious food as a human right, we won’t need widespread food charity. After decades of a hunger “emergency” now is the time to not only question the current model and the systems we’ve put in place to feed millions, but to join us in charting a new way forward.
Hunger is preventable. If we address the systemic inequalities at the root of the hunger insecurity epidemic, we can fix this problem.