Hunger and Food Security in the United States

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The USDA's Economic Research Service released a sobering report yesterday about "food security" in the United States. That term is a more nuanced way to explain what is generally called hunger, recognizing the many levels of need that exist between literal starvation and abundance. It could mean skipping meals, or going without food for an entire day. It could mean that your bank balance dictates how nutritionally balanced your meals are. It means anxiety lurking behind what should be pleasant words, like "lunch" and "dinner."

Perhaps it's not surprising, since we're in a recession, but I was alarmed to read these statistics: 14.6 percent of all households, or 49.1 million people, experienced food insecurity last year. That's not only a significant increase over last year's prevalence rate (11.1 percent), it's the highest level reported since this annual survey began in 1995.

The number is even higher in households with children—up to a shocking 21 percent, which as the Washington Post pointed out today, means that nearly one in every four American children has experienced hunger on some level.

How is this possible in a country with the world's largest economy and 10th-largest GDP per capita? As a point of comparison, Canada, which ranks 22nd on the global GDP scale, has a much lower rate of food insecurity, around 7 percent. On the other hand, look at this map of world hunger: Our problems pale compared to the prevalence of malnourishment in many developing countries.

Personally, I'm in the 85.4 percent of "food secure" American households. I'm generally thrifty; I shop sales and use coupons, but I don't hew to a strict budget. I feel free to choose healthier, fresher ingredients over cheaper alternatives. Cravings and curiosity, rather than price tags, often guide what lands in my grocery cart. This report makes me feel both grateful and guilty for what I often take for granted.

The USDA offers a few resources for taking action on food security, and I know there are many worthy hunger-relief agencies out there which could use your donations of food, money or time. I don't feel comfortable recommending a particular organization without researching it thoroughly, but if you do, please leave a comment. Here's a starting point.

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