Why Someone You Know Might Not Be Able to Afford Dinner Tonight

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Here at Greatist, we spend a lot of time providing you with healthy recipes, suggestions for health-focused grocery shopping, and tips to eat healthier at restaurants and on holidays. But what if there is no choice to reach for the organic, tri-colored peppers at the supermarket or order grilled salmon and brown rice at a restaurant? One in five Americans has trouble affording food to feed him/herself and/or family members. And that has nothing to do with whether or not the food is healthy. These issues are especially relevant given the $5 billion cut in funding for food stamps, which went into effect November 1.

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A recently released Gallup poll* revealed that 20 percent of Americans are having a hard time paying for food. That number has hardly dropped since the height of the Great Recession, during which Gallup recorded a peak of 20.4 percent. Greatist took a look at why so many Americans are going hungry.


Five years after the start of the most recent recession in America's history, we're facing a frighteningly low level of food security (defined as having access to sufficient safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life). Record numbers of families - more than 47 million people - are on food stamps, which amount to less than $1.50 per person, per meal. Depending on where and when, that money could be just enough to buy three fresh apples - which hardly constitutes a well-balanced meal. The cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will affect people differently based on household size: This November, an individual person will receive $11 less in food stamps, while a family of four will get $36 less. It's no wonder, then, that healthier choices are often replaced with the most caloric bang for that buck-fifty.

While many pundits maintain that the American economy is on the upswing, Americans' ability to consistently afford food has yet to return to prerecession levels. Some polls have found current food insecurity rates to be lower than the results of the Gallop poll - the USDA's Household Food Security report (released in September) estimates that 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least once during 2012, compared to 14.9 percent in 2011 - but the difference is fairly negligible. Despite the five percentage point disparity between the Gallup's poll of nearly 16,000 Americans and the USDA's survey of nearly 44,000 people, it's clear food prices prove burdensome for a significant portion of the country.


It would take multiple articles to explore all the possible root causes for staggering food insecurity in America. But one very clear correlation to the food insecurity saga is stagnant wages. While basic living costs have risen, wages have hardly increased. Unemployment levels remain high; plus many mid-wage jobs lost in the recession have been replaced by low-wage jobs. There are also the 23.5 million people (more than half of whom are low-income) who live in food deserts - urban neighborhoods and rural towns without easy access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

Lack of healthy food - or any food, for that matter - has major implications for cultural health and happinessHousehold food insecurity and coping strategies in a poor rural community in Malaysia. Shariff, Z.M., Khor, G.L. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Selangor, Malaysia. Nutrition Resource and Practice. 2008 March 31; 2(1): 26-34.. Food insecurity has been associated with obesity, which makes sense after crunching a few numbersFood insecurity is associated with obesity among US adults in 12 states. Pan, L., Sherry, B., Njai, R., et al. Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012 Sep;112(9):1403-9.. Simply put, less healthy food is often less expensive (though health experts are still unclear as to whether healthy foods are more expensive the majority of the time). Foods high in saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugar tend to have a lower price per calorie than vegetables and fruits, which are low in calories and rich in nutrients. When money is tight, sometimes it makes more sense to purchase cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling - in other words, to maximize calories per dollar - in order to fight hungerPoverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. Drewnowski, A., Specter, S.E. The Center for Public Health Nutrition, Departments of Epidemiology, University of Washington, Seattle. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004 Jan;79(1):6-16.. The sad thing is that nutritional compromises in the short term can result in health complications down the road.

Despite the obvious need for more assistance, the House of Representatives plans on cutting the U.S. food stamp budget by roughly $40 billion over the next ten years. The impact of the budget cut could increase food insecurity even more.


Despite the recession technically coming to a close, the high expense of food still affects many Americans. If we truly want to solve the health care crisis, maybe it's time to prioritize access to fresh, healthy foods.

*The poll, which is a part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index survey, is based on telephone interviews of a random sample of nearly 16,000 adults, 18 and older. This specific data is based on the question, “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

This article originally posted September 2013. Updated November 2013.

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