Food Insecurity (in the U.S.) Map

I got a box of ConAgra foods today that invites buyers to submit a box code online to fight hunger in the United States.Check out (http://www.childhungerendshere.com/) for more!

Hunger is an interesting subject in Geography. In the United States we often equate hunger with the lack of availability of food. In the U.S. most folks make thousands of dollars a year,  a simple $1,000 year paycheck equates to over $2 a day (which puts you above the usually accepted poverty line of $1 a day and just over the danger threshold of $2 a day). Most Americans make far more money. So in this country, how could folks go hungry? How could folks go hungry anywhere? The typical response is that there’s not enough food.

Wrong.

Its not availability of food. Its access. In fact, in most places even during some historical famines (see Bangladesh famine of 1971 for an instructive case), many people go hungry or starve, when there is plenty of food on the shelves.

I delved into the methodology behind Feeding America’s “Food Insecurity Map” and while I didn’t look deep enough to find the statistical work, the “insecurity” rates shown at the county level is all derived from freely available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor (at the Bureau of Labor Statistics). What the insecurity rates are, it seems, is an index of what Feeding America says are indicators of food insecurity. These indicators include: poverty, unemployment, median income, and other variables which aren’t listed.

I appreciate this approach but it should be pointed out that these numbers are speculative. The maps isn’t the result of an actual survey of individuals, households, and families for their food security. To put it another way, this is one perspective on U.S. food insecurity. There are other assessments out there, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service also publishes an annual assessment of household food security in the United States (see here for 2012). That report also uses U.S. Census Bureau data in addition to an ERS survey. In 2011, Feed America estimated 16.4% of Americans as food insecure (about 50 million people) during the years ERS estimated 14.9% of American households (about 18 million households) were food insecure. Of those 18 million households 6% (almost 7 million households) were very food insecure.

A final note is the definitions of “food insecurity” it always important to know the context. Are there 50 million Americans starving to death in the streets as grocery stores remain full? Obviously not, because you would hear about it. The USDA definition of food insecure is: “Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” Very food insecure households are: “In these households, the food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.”

In a more plain English – food insecure households had trouble providing enough food for everyone at times due to a lack of money. In very food insecure households some members had to skip meals, at times, due to a lack of money. The key points here are 1.) hunger is tied to access, which is primarily gained by “resources”/money, 2.) in the U.S. if you have difficulty at any time with feeding yourself or your household you’re “food insecure.”

What this leaves out of course is the quality of food one does have access to. What if there’s no Whole Foods within 2 miles of apartment? Does this get factored into the food insecurity assessment? What if I make enough to not have to survive on food stamps but between my two jobs and children I find myself dining with my children at a local fast food place? We might not be “hungry” but we’re certainly not “healthy.”

Geography has a role to play in the discussion of hunger, and many Geographers are involved in this conversation. “Access” to food implies much more than economic purchasing power. The word “access” is, after all, an inherently Geographic concept.

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