National Geographic's recent article "The New Face of Hunger" reveals that over half of the 48 million Americans who rely on SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or "food stamps") are white, and the majority of SNAP families with children have at least one working adult, usually in a full-time job. In fact, in the past decade, hunger has grown more quickly in America's suburbs than in its cities, creating a new class of what is being called "SUV poor."
This is a far cry from “Depression-era images of the gaunt-faced unemployed scavenging for food on urban streets,” writes Tracie McMillan. To explore this “new face of hunger” in America, National Geographic investigated three very different parts of the United States—Osage, Iowa; Houston, Texas; and Bronx, New York. What they found in these environments looked surprisingly different than they expected.
As McMillan writes:
To witness hunger in America today is to enter a twilight zone where refrigerators are so frequently bare of all but mustard and ketchup that it provokes no remark, inspires no embarrassment. Here dinners are cooked using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other processed ingredients from food pantries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are eaten only in the first days after the SNAP payment arrives. Here you’ll meet hungry farmhands and retired schoolteachers, hungry families who are in the U.S. without papers and hungry families whose histories stretch back to the Mayflower. Here pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life.
To reflect this shift in what America’s hungry families look like, the United States government started using the term “food insecure” (instead of “hunger”) back in 2006 to describe any household where people didn’t have enough food to eat sometime during the previous year.
In the article, Melissa Boteach, Vice President of the Poverty and Prosperity Program of the Center for American Progress, also points out that hunger and obesity often go hand-in-hand. To make ends meet, food insecure people frequently trade nutritious food for cheaper, less healthy fare that will fill them up more efficiently, if not effectively—leading to extra pounds.
This all leads to the question: Is it possible for SNAP families eat well in America on such limited resources? The answer is yes, but “most of the working poor don’t have the time of know-how required to eat well on little,” says McMillan. Canning homegrown produce and other cost-saving tactics require resources that many low-income families simply don’t have.
The good news is that change is creeping into some of these "food deserts," slowly but surely. In urban communities around the country, people are starting initiatives focused on educating the public and increasing access to affordable, nutritious, sustainably-grown food.
One recent example is Urban Oasis in St. Paul, Minnesota, an initiative that won a city-wide competition asking: “What would you do with $1 million to make St. Paul great?”
Tracy Sides, the founder of Urban Oasis, says she plans to help strengthen the community by hosting large public events and classes that are free to East Side residents, including cooking classes, canning demonstrations, a catering business that uses sustainably-grown ingredients, and local food sales from East Side vendors. As she told Twin Cities Pioneer Press: “All of our programs revolve around the same belief—that better access to whole food leads to a healthier, more prosperous community.”
Do you live in, or near, a food insecure community? What are some ways your family tries to eat healthy on a budget? Tell us on Twitter and Facebook, and check out our Healthy and Affordable page for money-saving ideas.