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 ( 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.


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.

Bread-making: Perspectives on Self Sufficiency

Well, I’d like to say I’ve discovered the joys of bread-making, or baking (as its more commonly known). While I made a “passable” (I could eat it) loaf of white bread with flour and store-bought yeast, I have yet to make a loaf with self-grown yeast (oh yes, I’m trying). Two weeks, three loaves, two failures (the one success being the store yeast). Today I was thinking about my quest for bread self-sufficiency and was thinking about the bread-making process. It really starts outside, in the ground, on a field, where wheat is grown and harvested, then milled into flour, and then made into bread. I was then thinking about wheat production in the United States and how much this would translate into loafs of bread, sort of a metric for the country’s self-sufficiency. Imagine a scenario where we would have to depend on our own wheat for our own bread, could we? I’m happy to report that we could, provided that the Federal Government or the U.S. Free Market system remains in place permitting the free movement of goods from one U.S. state to another. So if we’re talking about a Texas Secession scenario (I hang my head in shame) would we or they be self-sufficient? As I present the data, I’ll be sure to call out the underlying assumptions in this mini-project and we’ll conclude with its implications and how I could have improved it.

First the data, it comes from the U.S. Census Bureau (population estimated on July 1, 2012 by state), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (production by wheat type, yield, acreage by state), and the National Association of Wheat Growers (for some general ideas on how much bread is produced per bushel, and other fun facts). Second, my model assumptions. I’m assuming that every.single.bushel of winter wheat is being baked into a loaf of bread, at some point, over the year. Further, I assume that these loafs get to those who are the hungriest. Why winter wheat? Another website (that I conveniently forgot to keep in open) reported that Winter Wheat is primarily used for bread. Durum is used for pasta. And there this spring wheat as well. In 2012, the U.S. was on track to produce 2,224,075,000 bushels of wheat (2.2 billion) by July 1, 2012. Of that 1.6 billion or so was winter wheat, 82 million was durum, and 471 million was “other spring wheat.” Why is this important? Because some states, Arizona (durum) and Minnesota (other spring wheat) produce only non-winter wheat. So by leaving out those two types I essentially assume that they won’t be able to feed themselves (with bread) in this scenario. Further, some states produce multiple wheat types so I’m penalizing them for crop variety, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a winter wheat disease ravages the U.S., Arizona, Minnesota and diversified winter wheat states will be better off than say, Kansas. Which brings me to my next point, scope, I’m only looking at winter wheat, white loaves of bread, and whole wheat loaves of bread. Further I’m assuming everyone in the state will eat this bread when they’re hungry and won’t die because of it. In essence, this is a model – not reality, its a discussion and analytic exercise. To the results!

Referencing the table below (I’d make a map but I’m just so tired) Kansas was projected to produce some 396 million bushels of winter wheat, almost a quarter of total U.S. supply. The top three producers, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Washington, account for 40% of U.S. winter wheat production. There are 29 states listed here the other 31 are found in “other states” and account for about 3% of total U.S. winter wheat production among themselves. The top producers span the western portions of the American Midwest to the western side of the Rocky Mountains (the North American continental divide). The 1.6 billion bushels of American winter wheat could produce over 70 billion 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread. According to the National Association of Wheat Growers, one bushel of wheat produces 42 loaves of white bread. If the whole wheat is used, 90 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread can be produced from a bushel. In this conversion, the U.S. could produce over 150 billion 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread. That’s a lot of bread.

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

Winter wheat, bread, population, 2012 (via Census, USDA, NAWG)

But is it enough? Enter the U.S. Census data. By July 1, 2012 the Census estimated there would be about 313 million Americans. 70 billion loaves of bread seems like a lot, but remember that’s over an entire year. I could go through a loaf a week (but that’s a lot of bread so maybe every two weeks would have been a better idea). At any rate, I calculated the number of loaves of bread available, per week, for each individual. In July 2012, the United States probably produced enough wheat to provide every single person in the country, about four 1.5 lb. loaves of white bread OR about 9 1 lb. loaves of whole wheat bread, each week, for a calendar year. By this metric, yes the United States is self sufficient. On paper at least.

As we well know, there’s geographic disparity in wheat production. Based on the population numbers, Kansas produces enough wheat that it could provide a person in the state over 100 loaves of white bread or over 200 loaves of whole wheat bread per week for a year. North Dakota is probably the fourth-most self-sufficient, despite producing “only” 34 million bushels of winter wheat, the resulting bread could provide almost 40 to 80 loaves of bread to the 699 thousand inhabitants. By the same token, Texas is “barely” self-sufficient since its 26 million inhabitants would only receive between 2 and 6 loaves of bread per week, despite being the fourth largest producer of winter wheat. California and New York, other large states, are not self-sufficient in bread given their low winter wheat production and high populations. If the U.S. ever suffered a bread embargo (unlikely) then the populous east and west coasts would be competing for Midwestern breads.

While this exercise is a little bit far-fetched (admittedly) it does have actual implications. The first is for things like agricultural subsidies as integrated as the world economy becomes, food is still a “strategic” resource. Countries typically want to be able to control as much of their food supplies as possible. Though a dated example, Rome reportedly sowed the fields around Carthage with quicklime following the last of the Punic Wars in order to prevent Carthage from ever being a problem again. Today the stickiest negotiations at the World Trade Organization revolve around American and European agricultural subsidies. These subsidies promote an unfair global market titled toward “Western” producers, whose GDP is hardly based on agriculture in the first place, but in many developing economies, a sizeable chunk of GDP is centered on agriculture. The argument goes that if the “West” ended agricultural subsidies, the developing world could actually “develop” (economically). But then the “West” would be at the mercy of developing country governments, climates, and crops.

One thing this model needs is to account for milling locations, this data is probably available. I’m assuming here that the wheat is harvested and milled in the same location (by state). That might not be the case, while I’m assuming flour is easier to transport via rail I’m guessing its much less forgiving in terms of ambient moisture. Perhaps its easier to transport wheat from various locations to a mill?

In fact, I think its this latter point. I’m reminded now of something I read on the development of the northern U.S. economy and railroads. As the American West was opening in the 1800s, companies agreed to fund the construction of railroads westward for two purposes, first, to take eastern settlers to the Midwest (one fare) and second, to take western crops to mills in the East (a second fare). This apparently was enough to make rail lines profitable in the north. In the south, the dominance of the slavery economy and planter/plantation system, coupled with relatively lower population density made railroads difficult to justify. Planters wouldn’t want to fund competitors heading to the west, especially if they took slaves, who would be able to acquire cheaper and more plentiful land, and then out-produce the eastern planters. All of this is driven home in the map below, showing railroads in existence by 1870.

U.S. Railroads, ca. 1870 (via. brianaltonenmph)

So there you have it. A geography (albeit an American one) of bread. While the U.S. may be self-sufficient in matters of white and whole wheat bread, we should really be thanking the Kansans, Montanans, and Dakotans (yes, both of them) for producing so much extra. After all, I’m going to need some more flour to continue failing at making bread.

The State and Hunger: North Korea’s political Geography

The Mail (citing undercover reporters with Asia Press) reported the existence of cannibalism in North Korea, the last pure fascist-Marxist hybrid state left in Asia (perhaps the world). The article suggests that a ‘hidden famine’ is occurring in the country’s main breadbasket provinces and that some 10,000 people have already died. Causes of the potential famine are listed as a drought in the breadbasket areas and the confiscation of the remaining food by the government to give to the capital city, Pyongyang. While the brutality of the North Koran regime has been long documented by a variety of NGOs, this isn’t the first time that North Korea has experienced famine. The article notes that the North undertook an “Arduous March,” a delightful euphemism, for a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (if not a million) people.

This real human tragedy highlights important geographic links. First, there is the importance of understanding countries at a sub-regional level. A drought in a mountainous area might cause local food shortages, but it probably doesn’t have much impact on the food situation in the country at-large. Agriculture, as we all know, is typically concentrated in more temperate climates, with good soil, with reliable access to fresh water, and groups of people to work the land. These requirements aren’t typically available on mountainous slopes, though it is possible (as the Inca proved) to support substantial communities given time and effort. The North Korea case highlights the importance of a drought in an agricultural belt, lowering agricultural output in your breadbasket necessarily has a wider impact on your food situation in the entire country.

Next, there is the importance of understanding state actions during a food shortage, which reveal and highlight the political geography of the state. In North Korea’s case, confiscating food from the breadbasket provinces and redistributing them to the capital highlights the importance that the state places on the residents in the capital city. One could potentially argue that the regime is willing to let its farmers starve, with the outcome of them not able to work the land, then to let residents in the capital go hungry or starve. If we return to the organic state concept, the North Korean state (and probably most states) identify the capital city as the focus of their power – it must be protected at all costs.

Together the potential famine in North Korea highlights the importance of understanding the natural and social causes of hunger. On the one hand, physical phenomena, like droughts or flooding, can have a grave impact on local food supplies, often causing starvation and death. But these phenomena are, by their very nature, somewhat localized especially when discussing a countrywide scale. The human impact on starvation is often left out of the discussion, confiscating food, withholding food supplies, or poor political decisions often complicate “natural” disasters. Another good study of the human/political impact on famine is the Bangladesh famine of 1974 (shortly after independence) where government mismanagement of foodstocks exacerbated a local crisis. There’s probably a political element to the focus on natural causes, its easier (and politically safer) to blame the natural environment than to accept blame that your political system shares a large fault.

The World’s Malthusian Problem

Politics and academia shouldn’t mix. But they do, frequently. Politicians quote and carry “science” much like the kings of old carried “religion”. Frequently citing statistics, politicians justify platforms, programs, and policies without revealing the biases and assumptions within. But you already knew that. Academics, too, play political cards and if you followed this blog you know that I’m no friend of the decidedly lefty (not the handedness for I am also a lefty!) bent of academia, particularly in Geography. I don’t mind social activism and social justice these are noble ends, but proselytizing in a dissertation, thesis, or paper is lazy. Sure, you could blame everything on colonialism – what? that’s old hat you say? what about the state? no? the petite bourgeoisie then! – but that’s intellectually dishonest. There are multiple causes to any single event, especially in the social sciences which are concerned with explaining the vagaries of humanity. Think of yourself, why do you take the route you do to get to work or school? There’s a myriad of geographic factors.

Enter the Reverend (I had no idea!) Thomas Robert Malthus (d. 1834) political economist and geographer (specifically of the sub-discipline, demography). Writing as he did in the 19th century, Malthus noted something potentially troubling – population grew exponentially. Geographers widely acknowledge that 2.1 children per woman is a stable population (that is a population that neither grows quickly nor falls). Why? One child replaces the woman and another child replaces the man. The “.1” child is to replace any other member in the population that doesn’t have a child of their own, for biological or whatever reason. Imagine a world of just one couple, and they have “2.1” children (say, year 1). The following year (year 2) the world now has 4.1 people. In year three, the two couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 8.4 people in the world. In year four, 4 couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 17.2 people. Finally in year 5, our clan has grown by 2.1 children again for the 8 couples, leaving 35 people. So a “stable” population is still growing, more or less, just not very quickly. Imagine if you bump up the number of children to 3 or 4, 5 or 6?

Living before the Green Revolution (about the 1950s), Malthus saw this exponential population growth and compared it to agricultural output, which was growing linearly at the time. If you had a crop output in year 1 of say 1 ton, in year 2 you might be able to get 2 tons with the extra labor, and 3 tons in year 3. By year 5, when there are 35 mouths to feed you would only have 5 tons of grain! To Malthus, the high population growth in the 19th century (I’m guessing people in Britain at the time we’re having 6+ kids) was simply unsustainable the world would run out of food, mass starvation and famine would ensue. To Malthus, mass starvation and famine would lower the population and thereby increase relative food supply. Of course, that’s a relatively inhumane way to solve the problem (that is, let people starve) so he advocated for more proactive solutions, including moral restraint – remaining celibate until marriage and only marrying when one was able to support a family. Clearly, Malthus was wrong in that agricultural production can, and will, grow exponentially to keep up with demand (see chart from Wikipedia). If there is an ceiling on Terra’s carrying capacity (Geographer short-hand for the total population that available agricultural land can support), we haven’t quite reached it and we’re approaching 7 billion people.

Today, neo-Malthusians apply Malthus’ general argument, that too many people are a bad outcome for almost everything. And the latest example (finally got to the current story!) is in Foreign Policy magazine. The article states that Mali’s high population growth is the “real reason” that the country is “awash with terrorists.” The article calls the 3% growth rate “unsustainable” and specifically references Mali’s carrying capacity, but leaves it up to us to figure out if that’s true or not. The article could have been written by Malthus, “in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities”. Scary, if not new, thinking. This problem of the “youth bulge” has been discussed in security circles for a while now, and its still lazy thinking.

But first, let’s talk about terrorism and the potential links with high population growth. The article makes the usual point that young men, competing for too few resources, with too few opportunities, are “deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency.” The key here is “deeply susceptible”, essentially what this article is saying is that high population growth, leads to large numbers of young men (duh), and when there’s not enough opportunities to satisfy these young men (possibility), they could turn into armed criminals and insurgents. I suppose that’s true, but the United States has its own armed criminals and we’re well under the “2.5 per cent rule”. Rather than blame high population growth, I’d point the finger at sluggish opportunity (economic, social) growth. If this growth kept pace with population (3% or whatever), most “young men” would be able to satisfy their desire for improvement.

Furthermore, I’m not sure where the Saudi Arabia 2.3% number came from, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a growth rate of 1.8% in 2005.

And then there’s the false-negatives. Serbia, perpetrator of a genocide in the few decades had a 2005 growth rate of negative 0.5%. In other words, the population is decreasing. Similarly the West Bank had an estimated growth rate of 2.4% in 2005. In Tunisia, a country that toppled its own government during the so-called Arab Spring, the 2005 growth rate was 1.0%. Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor, had a growth rate of 1.3% in 2005. These countries have plenty of instability and violence and are growing relatively slowly (if at all). And of course, the article acknowledges the high growth rate countries without massive problems, like the United Arab Emirates (4.4% 2005 growth rate). This data comes from the international programs section at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Blaming insurgency on high population growth is lazy. Its easier to tell Mali, in this case, that you should lower your population growth. Not only is this answer lazy, its an easy political answer. The problem lies with you and your country. Of course, unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism don’t factor into the mix. But these aren’t the only problems, I doubt unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism have a demonstrable, direct impact on a decision for someone to join an insurgency and, possibly, get killed.

I think it would be much wiser and more even-handed to actually examine the multitude of reasons for why men, and women, join insurgencies and address those causes, whether they are economic, political, or social.