Insights & Advice


Food scarcity in a nation of obesity

Thirty-three percent of adults are obese, while ten percent of households with children are facing a food crisis. This is happening at the same time, in the same place—America. How can this be?

During the height of the pandemic, the media featured long lines of hungry Americans queuing up at food banks and other community centers to feed their families. That was a shocking sight to me. In the supposed wealthiest country in the world.

Digging deeper, I discovered that millions of Americans were facing food insecurity even before the coronavirus. The pandemic simply made a bad situation worse. What is worse, food scarcity strikes hardest at the most vulnerable populations. Black families, for example, are twice as likely as white to have inadequate access to healthy food.

First, we need to understand the definition of food scarcity or food insecurity, since both terms are being used to define the same thing. The term refers to the lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. From an economic perspective, it is defined as the inability to afford that same healthy food for all family members.

Back in the day, we only ever talked about hunger. I was poor (lower income in today’s terms}, but never hungry. However, there may have been times I suspect that my mother went without to feed us kids.

Let me be clear, food insecurity and hunger are not the same concept, even though they may be somewhat related. Food insecurity is socio-economic, which means its roots are both financial and cultural. Hunger is physiological, meaning physical. It is a physical sensation that might be a consequence of food scarcity or insecurity, but not always. We usually measure food scarcity at the household level and hunger at the individual level.

Today’s food security (or insecurity) is society’s attempt to move the discussion of food policy beyond simple hunger. It is an effort to capture the reality of individuals and families who struggle to get enough good quality food on the table.

On the other hand, obesity is defined as having excess body fat. Adults 35 years of age and older with a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30 are considered obese.

Where food scarcity and the problem of obesity meet most often is around the meaning of “good and healthy” foods. The lifestyle of the obese and the poor coincide in a number of areas. Poorer working families, (especially single parent households), for example, have neither the money nor the time to plan meals and supervise food intake.  Skipping breakfast, eating out at cheap, fast food joints, consuming highly processed and calorie-rich foods, snacking in front of the television, and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages are regular occurrences for families working to put food on the table. Those same eating habits are also commonly found in obese families and individuals. It should be no surprise to discover that one out of every six American children are both at risk of food scarcity and suffer from obesity as well.

Food insecurity is influenced by any number of factors including income, employment, race/ethnicity and disability. It can be long-term or temporary. For years, I have written about the growing income inequality in this country. Unfortunately, both the private and public sectors have ignored that issue.

As a result, a growing number of us are now suffering with the consequences of that trend. The onset of the pandemic only made a bad situation worse. The huge rise in unemployment, the long-term trend of shrinking real wages in the service industries, coupled with the shrinking safety net of both private health care and social programs have resulted in problems such as food scarcity.

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