By Jess Brunelle
Hunger, food insecurity, food deserts – chances are you’ve come across these terms on your journey to becoming more informed and conscious about the world around you but may struggle to connect the dots between the problem and what can be done to alleviate it. At least, that was the case for me. So, in honor of Hunger Action Month, let’s dig in (pun intended) to better understand the problem, some causes and what we can do – both on the corporate and consumer level – to combat the hunger crisis in the United States.
How Prevalent Is Hunger & Food Insecurity in the United States?
We’ve all experienced different degrees of hunger – that physical feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food – but because that feeling is a feeling it’s by definition different for everyone and hard to measure. To understand and really quantify the problem, Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, encourages us to focus instead on food insecurity defined as “the lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the problem as close to 15% of households with children are classified as food insecure.
Food insecurity can affect anyone, but statistics indicate that certain communities are afflicted more than others. Prior to the pandemic, White Americans, Hispanic Americans and Black Americans experienced food insecurity at 10.4%, 16.8% and 25.2% respectively. That racial disparity has only widened with the pandemic as 22% of White households with children, 37% of Hispanic households with children and 39% of Black households with children are food insecure. Although statistics on Native American populations were not included in this piece of research, other reports indicate this problem is even more severe in Native American communities. In just one region studied prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, 92% of households were found to suffer from food insecurity.
Why Is Food Insecurity in the United States Such a Big Problem?
It’s baffling to examine the massive problem of food insecurity in the context of how much food we waste – roughly 30-40% of food supply in the United States is wasted amounting to $100+ billion in losses annually There’s no one bad actor and thus not just one solution when it comes to food waste as inefficiencies & waste permeate every level of the supply chain from farming & production to retail to the consumer.
Access to affordable food is another big piece in the food insecurity puzzle and hits the rural communities hardest. Social media has exposed many of us to just how unaffordable food can be in some communities. For example, in some North American indigenous communities, groceries cost 1.5 times more than the cost of food in a nearby city. 87% of the US counties with highest food insecurity rates are rural areas where people live too far from stores that sell fresh quality food. This concept of a geographic area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food is commonly referred to as a “food desert” which is found in all parts of the United States – both in urban and rural areas.
Although where people live certainly factors into access, availability of income to afford food is also a factor that can’t be ignored.
How Do We Solve It?
Because the issue of food insecurity in the United States is massive and the causes are nuanced and linked – there, of course, is no one-size fits all solution.
To combat food waste, companies – both retailers and suppliers – can play a large part in reducing waste in the production and operational part of the supply chain before it even reaches consumers. Accountability to initiatives like 10 x 20 x 30, a coalition of 200 food suppliers, manufacturers and retailers pledging to halve their food waste by 2030, will make a difference. A few ways retailers can work towards accomplishing food waste reduction goals include:
- Partner directly with farmers to share their data on demand for specific food items to help farmers prevent over planting
- Sell and market cosmetically imperfect fruit and vegetables at a discount instead of throwing produce away
- Distribute surplus food to charities instead of throwing it away
Companies’ role in accessibility to nutritious food is more complicated. While retailers opening locations in food deserts is a step in the right direction, recent research has found that the overall nutritional quality of a household’s grocery purchases was not heavily impacted by a new store’s opening in a food desert. Focusing on accessibility without making healthier food more affordable doesn’t address the whole problem, which likely requires policy support.
So how can you be part of the solution as a consumer ? Below are just a few ways:
- Lower your waste footprint when making purchasing decisions – the average American wastes 1 pound of food every day. Overconsumption at a macro-scale upholds the economic incentives that drive our current industry-wide status quo.
- Support game-changing ideas: Some product is sold with natural freshness enhancers from companies like Apeel and Stixfresh. And imperfect produce (which makes up around 40% of global food waste) can be bought from “ugly produce” companies like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods.
- Vote with your dollar: When you can, buy local and buy in season. By keeping food production close to home, farmers work directly with consumers to make sure food is distributed and doesn’t go to waste – this localized approach has been shown to improve access to nutritious foods and overall community health. And when buying from big food brands, use Cluey to check brands’ ratings on People and Planet to discover how they’re working to reduce negative impacts.
Cluey exists to better inform consumers of their everyday impact on the world. This includes how we can impact food insecurity through the brands we buy. We’ve launched a limited release of our new app focused on food & beverage brands, and in support of Hunger Action Month for every person that tests out our new app through October 8th, we will donate $1 to Feeding America. Feeding America isthe largest hunger-relief organization in the United States with a national network of 200+ food banksandevery dollar donated provides at least 10 meals to families in need. Sign up for early access to Cluey and to test today!