What just happened?
A news report by the Associated Press finds that even as the economic results of the pandemic are subsiding, food insecurity remains persistent, especially for children and the elderly.
For instance, data from Feeding America, a national network of most U.S. food banks, shows its members distributed about 42 percent more food in the last three months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. The quantity of food allotted in those three months was only 1 percent lower than in the months of July, August, and September of 2020.
“A lot of families who were living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic were already experiencing food insecurity,” says Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America. “Now, the level of insecurity for some has grown more extreme, when you see real hunger—mom skipping meals to feed the family.”
How significant a problem is hunger in America?
When discussed as policy and in social science, hunger is defined as a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs (i.e., is malnourished). While the vast majority of people who suffer from hunger live in developing countries, a considerable number of people in America also suffer from hunger at least part of the time.
Determining how many Americans are affected, though, is made more difficult because we do not have an exact way to identify who lacks food. A common proxy is the metric known as “very low food security.” The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), classifies households into four categories: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security. Households with high or marginal food security are called food secure, and households with low or very low food security are called food insecure.
Since 1998 the USDA has conducted surveys to determine levels of food security—access by people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. The survey includes a category for “very low food security.” These are households in which the food intake of one or more members was reduced and eating patterns disrupted because of insufficient money and other resources for food. Households without children are classified as having very low food security if they report six or more food-insecure conditions. Households with children age 17 and younger are classified as having very low food security if they report eight or more food-insecure conditions among adults and/or children.
The use of food insecurity as a measure of hunger has been controversial. The USDA asked the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies to convene a panel of experts to undertake a two-year study to review the issue. In 2006, the committee reported:
The panel therefore concludes that hunger is a concept distinct from food insecurity, which is an indicator of and possible consequence of food insecurity, that can be useful in characterizing severity of food insecurity. Hunger itself is an important concept that should be measured at the individual level distinct from, but in the context of, food insecurity.
The number of people in America who could be categorized as hungry is thus an indefinable subset of the people classified as having very low food security. For the purposes of this article, the phrase “very low food insecurity,” while inexact, refers to what most people think of as hunger.
How significant a problem is very low food insecurity in America?
In December 2019 the USDA’s Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement found 3.7 percent of U.S. households reported experiencing food insufficiency (sometimes or often not having enough to eat) in the previous 12 months, with 0.9 percent experiencing very low food sufficiency.
As the USDA notes, very low and low food sufficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic “affected certain segments of the U.S. population more than others, particularly households with children and households that experienced a loss of employment income.” For example, for December 9–21, 2020, the prevalence of food insufficiency was higher for households with children (15.6 percent) than households with no children (9.5 percent).
The prevalence of food insufficiency was 19.5 percent for households that reported loss of employment income, compared with 4.6 percent for households that had not lost income. Disparities by race are also apparent. The prevalence of food insufficiency was higher for Black, Hispanic, and other/multiracial households compared with white and Asian households.
How do we solve the issue of domestic food insecurity?
The pandemic has obviously worsened the problem of food insecurity. But is it a problem that can be solved under economic conditions?
In an attempt to answer that question, Congress created the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger, a group charged with providing “policy recommendations to Congress and the USDA Secretary to more effectively use existing programs and funds of the Department of Agriculture to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity.”
The commission released a report on its findings and recommendations in 2015. According to the executive summary, “This report is based on the commission members’ full agreement that hunger cannot be solved by food alone, nor by government efforts alone. The solutions to hunger require a stronger economy, robust community engagement, corporate partnerships, and greater personal responsibility, as well as strong government programs.”
The commission identified six root causes of hunger:
- Labor Market Forces and Job Availability—“The number of households experiencing hunger is sensitive to economic forces.”
- Family Structure—“Marriage has a significant impact on whether or not a household will experience hunger: Households with an unmarried head of household are more likely to face hunger than other households in America.”
- Education—“U.S. high school graduation rates have improved, with the national graduation rate exceeding 80 percent in 2012 for the first time in U.S. history; however, economic, racial, cultural, and ethnic differences remain.”
- Exposure to Violence—“Research over the last 10 years has found that victims of violence, neglect, or abuse as a child or violence as an adult, are more likely to report hunger.”
- Historical Context—“There are significant racial, ethnic, and gender disparities between households that report hunger and those that do not.”
- Personal Responsibility—“Although we feel that our nation would make progress in reducing hunger if we made gains in each of the factors above, we also acknowledge one other key ingredient—the actions of individuals.”
The commission also made recommendations in six areas of public policy. In its conclusion, the commission also notes that “there is another aspect of personal responsibility at work: personal responsibility extends to all. Everyone can take direct actions to reduce hunger.”
The report added a claim that should resonate with all Christians: “Each of us should extend compassion for and help to our neighbors and get involved in hunger relief efforts in our communities. We need more of that kind of personal responsibility, too. With it, we will end hunger in the United States.”
What does the Bible say about hunger?
The Bible is clear that God cares about those who suffer from food insecurity (Isa. 58:6–7). In the Old Testament, God used gleaning, the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been harvested, to provide for those in need (Deut. 24:19–21).
Since we do not live in the same agricultural context as the ancient Hebrews, Christians in American need to think of creative ways to apply the principle behind gleaning in our domestic economy. We should also remember that the Lord calls us to provide directly to those in need (Luke 3:11; Gal. 2:10) and warns that neglect and mistreatment of the poor will result in divine judgment (Matt. 25:41–46).