Fewer Americans are struggling with hunger than at any point since 2007, according to federal statistics. But local anti-hunger organizations say that data doesn’t tell the full story.
Households that have dependable access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle are considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be “food secure.” The agency measures food security using survey questions that cover concerns over both the quantity and quality of food a household can afford.
It's the lowest rate since 2007. Food insecurity spiked to more than 14 percent of U.S. households during the Great Recession on 2008, and has been slow to decline. 2018 marked the first time the measure reached pre-recession levels.
Alisha Coleman-Jensen, an analyst with the USDA's Economic Research Service, says that is to be expected. The agency identified low income as the most significant cause of hunger.
"Food insecurity is closely related to economic resources. We know that poverty and low-income is a significant factor and we see much higher food insecurity rates for low-income households," Coleman-Jensen said.
That’s reflected in the greater portion of low income households reporting as food insecure, 35 percent compared to the national average of 11 percent.
Hawaii residents reported some of the lowest rates of inadequate food in the country, with only 8% of households showing as food insecure. That was higher than only New Hampshire, with a rate of 7.8 percent. New Mexico had the highest rate, with 17 percent of homes reporting not having enough food.
But Hawaii’s encouraging statistics may conceal a more troubling reality according to local non-profits working to reduce hunger. Ron Mizutani, CEO of the Foodbank of Hawaii, says the federal statistics do not reflect the demand for the foodbank’s services that he sees every day.
“We have continued to see a tremendous amount of food that goes out the door every day. Roughly about a million pounds of food every single month. We go with the number of 1 in 8, and that's based on what we see with our partner distribution agencies and those numbers have not declined,” Mizutani said.
1 in 8 people works to a household rate of over 12 percent, above the national average and in the upper half of U.S. states. It’s also 60 percent higher than the USDA estimate for Hawaii.
Mizutani cites the survey questions as a potential source of the error. He believes the questions may not accurately account for social practices in Hawaii, like multi-generational living situations, that are less common in mainland states.
The federal government has been collecting survey data on food insecurity since 1995. In that time, the rate has never fallen below 10 percent of U.S. households.
Anti-hunger activist and writer Andy Fisher has written several books on the subject, including his most recent Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.
He argues that there are lots of reasons Americans continue to experience food insecurity: corporations profiting from federal food assistance programs, undue influence from private interests in the operations of foodbanks, and the failure of anti-hunger groups to lobby for broader economic programs like raising the minimum wage.
“The purchasing power of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. The minimum wage in Hawaii is $10.10 an hour. Those low wages are what’s causing the stagnation in food insecurity,” Fisher said.
The USDA report points out that only 56 percent of households identified as being food insecure also report being enrolled in one the 3 main food assistance programs run by the federal government: SNAP, WIC, and the National School Lunch program.
That could be a reporting error, but it may also reflect that many individuals struggling with food security do not qualify for federal assistance programs. USDA analyst Coleman-Jensen pointed out that the eligibility requirements for the largest program, commonly known as food stamps, do not take in to account major expenses like medical bills or elder care.
Expenses like that are an effective reduction in the income on the payer. If low income is the primary cause of food insecurity, as the USDA believes, thousands of households may fall into a gray zone where they do not qualify for assistance, but do not have adequate resources to provide year-round food security.
Andy Fisher will be holding a speaking on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus Thrusday, September 12th at 6:30 pm. The talk is free and open to the public. Find details here.