1. Hunger and Food Insecurity
“Bryan Gargan (right), a senior at Salem State University, gets food at the Salem
Pantry’s food distribution station on campus.” Source: Boston Globe (28 Oct 2020).
2. Guiding Questions
• What is “hunger”? What is “food insecurity”?
• What circumstances cause hunger and food insecurity?
• Why and how do hunger and obesity coexist?
• What systems do we have in place to help people who are
hungry or food insecure?
• Why is hunger so difficult to address despite the fact that the
world produces enough food for everyone?
3. Source: Marion Nestle, “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP):
History, Politics, and Public Health Implications,” pg. 1632.
4. Food Insecurity
“The limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe
foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable
manner. The most extreme form [i.e. “very low food security”] is often
accompanied with physiological sensations of hunger.”
(College and University Food Bank Alliance)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “food insecure” those
households do not have “access, at all times, to enough food for an
active, healthy life for all household members.”
6. Hunger in America: The Scope of the Problem
• Millions of children and families living in America face hunger and food insecurity each day.
• In 2018, 14.3 million American households were food insecure with limited or uncertain
access to enough food.
• According to the USDA’s latest Household Food Insecurity in the United States report, more
than 35 million people in the United States struggled with hunger in 2019.
• Due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 50 million people experienced
food insecurity in 2020, including nearly 17 million children.
• Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity. Before the
coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million children lived in food-insecure households.
• Every community in the country is home to families who struggle with food insecurity
including rural and suburban communities.
• Many households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition
programs and need to rely on their local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for
Source: Feeding America (2020) https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america
7. Projected rates of food insecurity for 2020 by state, according to Feeding America’s
The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Security. (Courtesy Feeding America)
8. What does food insecurity
look like in nation
generally considered to be
Source: Feeding America
(Data from 2014)
9. Surprising Neighbors: Hunger and Obesity
• Hunger and obesity often exist in the same communities. This is because
the foods that are most affordable are usually those that have been highly
processed and often have high caloric content with little nutritional value
(so-called “junk foods”).
• Many low income communities do not have access to grocery stores or
other means of purchasing nutritious foods such as farmer’s markets. These
areas are generally known as “food deserts.” In food deserts, residents may
purchase food at convenience stores, liquor stores, or fast food outlets,
which rarely sell fresh produce or other healthy items.
• Areas without access to a grocery store but with a high volume of fast food
outlets are referred to as “food swamps.”
10. Childhood Malnutrition
• Children under three years old, along with pregnant and lactating women,
are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of malnutrition.
• After the age of two or three, the effects of severe malnutrition are
irreversible, as these early years are crucial for physical and cognitive
• Malnutrition in childhood has harmful effects on brain growth and function,
leading to cognitive impairments often related to iron deficiency.
• Malnourished children may not reach their optimal height or weight, and
may experience physical impairments, weakness, and sickliness likely to
affect them into adulthood.
• According to motherchildnutrition.org, “Child malnutrition is the single
biggest contributor to under-five mortality due to greater susceptibility to
infections and slow recovery from illness.”
Source: Mother-Child Nutrition
11. Rates of Food Insecurity
Two-Year Institutions: 42-55%
Four-Year Institutions: 33-48%
12. • SNAP is the nation’s largest food security program and its third largest anti-
• Since 2008, benefits are paid out on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card that is
swiped like a credit or debt card. In the past, benefits were issued in the form of paper
stamps that could be used to purchase food, which is why SNAP is still often referred to
as “food stamps.”
• Multiplier effect: every $1 spent by U.S. on food stamps generates $1.5 in GDP SNAP
also helps businesses that accept SNAP benefits (e.g. grocery stores).
• SNAP funds can be used to purchase household food items such as fruits and vegetables,
meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, breads and cereals, baby food and formula, and non-
alcoholic beverages. With some exceptions for people who are elderly, disabled, or
homeless, SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy prepared foods. EBT cards can now be
used at most farmer’s markets, though very few SNAP dollars actually are used there.
SNAP (“Food Stamps”)
Source: Nestle, “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” AJPH (Dec 2019).
13. • SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning everyone who is eligible and applies will receive
benefits, and enrollment shifts with changing rates of poverty. As a result, the program is large and
expensive. According to the USDA, in 2018:
• One in eight Americans (40.3 million adults and children) received benefits
• Average benefit per individual: $125
• Total cost of SNAP: $60.8 billion in benefits plus $4.4 billion cost of running the program
• The program is regularly funded (“authorized”) by Congress as part of the Farm Bill, a law that is
“principally designed to protect the interests of agribusiness. Congress cannot get the votes to pass
agricultural supports [subsidies] unless it simultaneously authorizes SNAP” (Nestle, pg. 1631).
• All federal food assistance programs (including SNAP, school food programs, and WIC) are run by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which primarily exists to advocate for food producers
(i.e. farmers). This poses a conflict of interest, as the USDA cannot protect the interests of food
producers and consumers at the same time.
SNAP Funding and Administration
Source: Nestle, “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” AJPH (Dec 2019).
14. Source: USDA Food and Nutrition Service
SNAP eligibility is calculated using the
federal poverty level, and the vast
majority of SNAP recipients (more
than 90 percent) live at or below the
federal poverty line. As this table
illustrates, SNAP eligibility
requirements stipulate that a family of
four with a gross income of $34,069
receives no SNAP benefits. SNAP
primarily benefits poor Americans,
especially children, the elderly, and
disabled individuals. SNAP constitutes
the core of the nation’s hunger safety
net. According to Nestle, “SNAP is
demonstrably effective in reducing
hunger, food insecurity, and poverty,
thereby reducing the effects of these
conditions on public health” (pg. 1631).
15. Source: Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities (Sep 2020).
A household’s actual monthly
benefit is calculated according to the
USDA’s expectation that a
household receiving SNAP will still
spend about 30 percent of its net
resources on food.
16. Food Insecurity
Estimates as of January 2021:
50 million Americans, including 17 million children, are food insecure.
About 38 million American currently receive food stamps.
(Washington Post, USA Today)
Compare this to the 35 million Americans who were food insecure at
some point in 2019, the lowest rate in 20 years.
(NPR, Feeding America)
17. Why is food insecurity on the rise since the onset of the pandemic?
• Rising rates of economic insecurity, joblessness, and dislocation (“heat
or eat” dilemma).
• Insufficiency of federal food aid programs, both in terms of eligibility
restrictions and benefit limits.
• Disruption of school breakfast and lunch programs, which serve a vital
function in reducing childhood hunger and malnutrition.
• Closure of senior centers, where many older people receive regular
• Surging demands on charitable food programs at same time that
donations have declined. Food charity food security
20. Source: Food Research and Action Center (Sep 2020)
This chart illustrates enormous increases in food insecurity in the U.S. between 2018 and July 2020, several
months into the pandemic. In particular, it emphasizes disparate rates of food insecurity by race, with Black
and Latinx populations experiencing relatively higher rates and white and Asian populations experiencing
relatively lower rates. Regardless of racial demographics, households with children are more likely to
struggle with food insecurity, as children are more likely to experience poverty than the population at large.
21. The Federal Response During the Pandemic
• Feb to Dec 2020: 15 percent increase in SNAP enrollment
• Families First Coronavirus Response Act (signed Mar 18, 2020)
• Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP)
• “Farmers to Families” Program initially helped producers funnel food to
people in need, including via charitable food institutions.
• Contracts of many black farmers in the south were not renewed; instead
large corporations like Sysco won the business.
• Est. Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program.
• Funds eligible families for cost of meals children would have consumed at
school during the week (~$5.70 per day) if schools are closed five or more
• Through 2020, emergency SNAP measures did not address needs of
poorest Americans who were already receiving the max. benefit permitted.
22. “The bottom line is this:
We’re in a national emergency. We
need to act like we’re in a national
emergency. So we have to move, with
everything we’ve got. Families are
going hungry. People are at risk of
being evicted. We need to act.”
--President Biden, on Jan 22, before
signing an executive order
requesting that the USDA permit states to
increase SNAP benefits for the poorest
Americans and to increase by 15 percent
P-EBT benefits to families of children
eligible for school food assistance.
24. How can we advance food security in light of these realities?
1. Dismantle the “hunger-industrial complex” that encourages/enables large
corporations to pay low wages, then get tax breaks for making donations
to programs that subsidize their labor force. Funnel money to smaller
2. Raise wages. Hunger is poverty issue. Pay “essential workers” like they
3. Increase SNAP benefits. In addition to the most effective measure we
have against food insecurity, SNAP serves as economic stimulus. $1 in
SNAP = $1.50 to $1.80 in economic benefits. Expand to include online
purchases and hot meals.
4. Address systemic racism. Issues of food access, including food insecurity
and obesity, disproportionately affect communities of color (e.g. food
deserts, food swamps).
5. Dismantle policy silos. Hunger and food insecurity cannot be addressed
in isolation from things like housing and childcare policies.
In 2019, CBPP estimated that nearly half of households receiving SNAP benefits remain food insecure, unable to afford the food needed to ensure a healthy, active lifestyle.