This is What a Desert Looks Like

Written by Marie Stamsen

#foodinsecurity #fooddeserts #itsnotwhatitlookslike #feedamerica #nochildhungry

Most Americans today grew up watching commercials on TV asking for donations to feed the hungry children in Africa or Southeast Asia.  Our parents guilted us into finishing our plates, reminding us that kids in far off places were much less fortunate than ourselves. 

Make no mistake – those populations face hunger every day and their struggle is very real.  However, one does not have to look too far away to find those that are hungry and struggle to feed their families every day.  It is not just an issue that affects third world nations.  In fact, more than 42 million people every day face hunger right here in the United States. That is One in every Eight people.  One might even be your neighbor.  One, might even be you.

Hunger, poverty and food insecurity look very different in the US than  in other parts of the world, but it is just as real and just as scary.  

13 million children in the UInited States live in homes that are considered “food Insecure”. This takes a terrible toll on their health and development, and threatens their futures in profound ways. It also drags down the nation’s economy by perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  Providing these families with the food they need can help to improve not just their immediate family, but the surrounding community as well.  

This issue was brought to the national stage in recent years. In  2019, the food insecurity rate was at the lowest it had been in more than twenty years.  And by “lowest”, I mean 35 million people, including nearly 11 million children, were considered “food insecure”.  This is still a staggering number considering the wealth of resources in this country.

Then, in March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.  The mandated stay-at-home order and the closure of all non-essential businesses resulted in the US’ first economic recession since 2007 skyrocketing unemployment rates.  Feeding America estimates that 45 million people experienced food insecurity in 2020 during the course of the global crisis.  That is a 10 million-person jump in just one year!

While the projected numbers for 2021 show a promising decline, they are still at levels much higher than compared to pre-COVID times.  Further, as data from across the pandemic has indicated, the effects of the economic crisis have not been experienced evenly across the US population, and food insecurity is no exception.  In fact, it may be one of the most significant disparities felt during this time.   

A recent study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that the burden of food insecurity was “disproportionately high” among households headed by Blacks and Hispanics.  During the pandemic, nearly 1 in 5 Black people were found to experience food insecurity; nearly a quarter of the total affected population.  

The current study contributes further evidence demonstrating that the gap between Black/ Hispanic and White households in food insecurity is persistent throughout the pandemic citing Black people are more likely to work in industries affected by the pandemic, which worsened the long-standing economic hardship Black families have been facing. Meanwhile during the same time period, Hispanics reported fear of leaving the house to purchase food largely due to immigration and deportation enforcements mobilized surrounding border security due to the pandemic.  

Now, if you have the fortune to never have experienced food insecurity, you may envision those affected by this issue to be living in remote areas where food – any food – is scarce.  In reality,  over 80% of the food insecure population reside in urban counties correlated with higher populations of people of color. 

“Food Deserts” are defined by the CDC as areas with poor access to healthy and affordable foods.  Their research found availability of quality healthy foods to be significantly lower in areas that were majority, Hispanic/Black. When healthy food was available in those areas, they often came at higher prices. This means that if you step out of your house and are surrounded by 5 fast-food restaurants, you can still be considered living in a food desert.  For low-income families that struggle to feed their children, a 2 for $6 deal on burgers or the Dollar Menu may seem like a godsend; but the foods available on those lists are often void of any nutritional content that helps in the development of the mind or body.  But too often, that is the only alternative to going to bed with an empty stomach.

The prevalence of food insecurity and food deserts in lower income neighborhoods with high racial/ethnic background is a product of institutional and systemic racism in this country that has kept this population in the cycle of poverty for generations.  Poor nutrition, especially in the developmental years has long -lasting effects on health, socio-economic status and educational attainment.  As you can imagine, these are the most influential factors on one’s ability to rise out of poverty.  

The pandemic and the sudden influx of unemployed meant that some people experienced food insecurity for the first time during 2020.  An estimated 40% of those who went to food banks reported this was their first experience being food insecure.  This brought a whole new level of attention and exposure to this issue.  Federal programs expanding EBT provisions for families and emergency funding for school nutrition programs have been some of the relief efforts set in place to relieve economic stress during this time.

These relief efforts are proof that there are resources available to provide nutritional meals to children and families all across the country.  However, the majority of these efforts are emergency relief/aid and are not permanent amendments to the Farm Bill and those benefits will likely be terminated by the end of the 2021 school year.  This will shoulder the responsibility of managing the nation’s food insecurity back onto the local communities and organizations. 

And, hey! That’s YOU!

So, how DO you help?  That all depends on you and what you are willing to commit.  There is no “wrong” way to help, the important thing is that it is consistent so be realistic about what you are willing to contribute.  With that said, here are some ways you can help.

LIKE/SHARE/TWEET: We live in an age of social media and getting the message out has never been easier.  But somebody needs to be that voice.  Most organizations have a Facebook page or a Twitter account that you can like or follow.  If you don’t have the time or funds to lend to the cause – just use your voice and spread the word.  Pass along the message to bring more awareness to the issue amongst your circle and beyond.  It just may get to someone that is moved to action.

CASH: It is still king.  Donating to an organization allows for them to get resources to those in need and their efforts could not exist without your support.  There are organizations such as No Kids Hungry and Feeding America that help distribute donations on a national level as well as organizations such as United Way that work in the local community and keep your donations local.  

GROW IT:  If you have a green thumb or belong to a community garden, chances are you grow WAY more fresh foods than you know what to do with.  Many communities have organizations that will come and collect donated food and deliver it to food banks in your community.  Food banks are notoriously stocked with non-perishable (read:canned and processed) foods and often do not have fresh foods on hand to give to those in need.  

VOLUNTEER: Low on funds but have some time?  Your local community can always use some of it.  Do you like to cook?  Teach a cooking class at the community center; or volunteer at a food bank.  Or even go around collecting those fresh foods from community gardeners.  

There are plenty of ways that you can be part of the solution to this massive humanitarian crisis we are facing.  And YOU don’t have to be the single solution to the problem.  The fact is that it is a global crisis and it will take the global community to bring resolve.  But if everyone did something – no matter how small – to impact their own community, it would easily turn into the global effort we desperately need.