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public health

Nov 19, 2009

Starving America?

What does economic crisis mean for a country's health? Hunger and hardship for the population's most vulnerable, judging by the news coming out of the US. Croakey's North American co

What does economic crisis mean for a country’s health? Hunger and hardship for the population’s most vulnerable, judging by the news coming out of the US.

Croakey’s North American correspondent, Dr Lesley Russell, writes:

“While an excellent discussion is underway on Croakey about the value of calorie labeling in tackling obesity, it has been shocking this week to confront front page news that the number of Americans who don’t have enough food is at an all-time high, largely as a consequence of the nation’s economic crisis.

Every year the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture compiles a report on Household Food Security.

The 2008 report released this week revealed that last year almost 50 million people in 17 million households (14.6% of all US households) were food insecure and families had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year. This is an increase from 13 million households (11.1%) in 2007. The 2008 figures represent the highest level of food insecurity since national food security surveys were initiated in 1995.

Given that unemployment has risen from 7.2% at the end of 2008 to 10.2% today, this might now be an under-estimate of the number of people struggling to put enough food on the table.

The magnitude of the increase in food shortages, or in some cases outright hunger, has startled even anti-poverty advocates and those who have noticed the increasingly longer lines at food banks and soup kitchens.  It is especially concerning that so many children are going hungry.  In 2008 nearly 17 million children (4 million more than in 2007) lived in households where food was sometimes scarce, and children in more than half a million households faced “very low food security”.

The USDA did not actually use the word “hunger”, but President Obama did and in a statement yesterday, he called the report “unsettling.”  Others were even more forthright.  Mariana Chilton, a Drexel University public-health professor, said: “This is a catastrophe. This is not a blip. This recession will be in the bodies of our children.”

The fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the US is poverty and a lack of resources to provide housing, food and health care.  The Obama Administration has taken action to help needy families through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which provided a significant increase in nutrition assistance benefits for the 36.5 million people (half of whom are children) who participate in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program.

The USDA also has a National School Lunch program which serves 31 million children a healthy meal each school day – for some children in need, this is their most important meal that day. Also, nearly half of all infants in the US participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC program, which ensures mothers and their children have access to nutritious food.”

• Dr Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies  Center for Health Policy, University of Sydney/ Australian National  University and a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.  She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC.

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3 thoughts on “Starving America?

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  3. D. John Hunwick

    I cannot see how the problem is likely to improve soon. I expect the cost of fuel to rise (and therefore of food), I expect a growing problem with water availability (and an increase in cost of food as it decreases in quantity) and I expect food security for most nations will decrease to the point that the first obligation of any government will be to ensure that its population can feed itself. This problem is destined to grow and grow, especially if we refuse to face the problem of population growth and stem the number of mouths we ae trying to feed on a system close to breaking point already.