Shockingly (or not so much, if you read here regularly), despite the supposed improvements in the economy, more and more American families are struggling to put meals on the table. The USDA reports a record 46.7 million American households are on food stamps. 17.9 % of American households (up 700,000 from 2010) didn’t have enough food at least some of the time. In addition, the number of households with “very low food security” – meaning people regularly go hungry rose by almost half a million households – as high as at the height of the economic crisis. Notably, this is data that covers a period BEFORE the current spike in food prices.
This is really important stuff, although it got very little news attention when it was released yesterday – probably because we’re used to bad news on this front. Enrollment in SNAP (aka “Food Stamps”) is particularly important because it represents something we don’t really like to talk about – despite America’s wealth, food is a serious issue for a lot of households. The dramatic rise (up over 3% from last year and more than doubled since 2003) in food stamp use to one in seven households (and one in four households with children in it) means a lot of things. First, that in an era of increasingly volatile household costs, food is the thing that goes by the wayside.
It also means, though, that quietly, covertly, subtly, America has become a nation that MUST subsidize food for its people, because otherwise, the consequences are real hunger – we are now dependent on those food subsidies and they reverbate through a whole host of things. Our agricultural policy, for example, is shaped by the opposition of many anti-poverty activists to any major changes that might reduce the supply of industrial food coming into food pantries. The dollars the government spends on SNAP by and large go into the industrial food system (I should be clear, I deeply support SNAP, but I think it could be restructured to do more to help grow the kind of food system we need for the future) And fundamentally, nations subsidize food because they are afraid of the consequences of hunger they know is lurking – we are like Saudi Arabia and China in that respect – a program that feeds 1 in 7 is not a safety net, it is a subsidy.
The children who come to my house live in households that experience this profound hunger in many cases. That the absolute number of seriously hungry people are rising is not a surprise – but the face of it is different when you are daily confronted with it. Taking children to the farmer’s market and having them panic, literally shaking in fear because they do not know if there will be enough money for them to get anything to eat, having them hoard food because food has never been a reliable part of their lives will make you feel just how hard this change is. And it isn’t going in any direction that looks good.