Uncle Sam’s Empty Stomach
Are there really 13 million American children without food?
Written by: Madelin Chau
This is America. The land of plenty. The home of globally acclaimed food chains, such as McDonald’s and Starbucks. A nation riddled with the dilemma of obesity. Why, then, are there a staggering 13 million children in the United States who have nothing to eat every day?
Many have debated over this question, but there seems to be no one definite answer. How does one begin to explain why 1 in 6 American children face uncertainty in their next meal in such a food-filled country? Bryan Stallings, cofounder of Jesus Was Homeless, a nonprofit food pantry in Missouri, poses a possibility. “The non-political answer, to me, is greed and government,” he says. There are “too many government health restrictions that force restaurants to throw away food instead of donating it to the needy. It's also greed: We're not helping our neighbors.”
Stalling’s words prove true. The National Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group, found that 40% of uneaten food is thrown out annually, which is worth an estimated $165 billion and could feed 25 million Americans. Additionally, the USDA’s (United States Department of Agriculture) Research Service found that 31% of food is wasted on the consumer and retail level, which would include restaurants and individual households, like Stallings suggested. What is the single largest component of municipal landfills? Uneaten food. With these disturbing statistics, it makes sense how a country with such an abundance of resources still falls short at feeding its population.
Why exactly are we throwing away so much food? According to Jacob Gersen, a law professor at Harvard Law School, strict government regulations are to blame. Restaurants in particular are held liable if the food they donate to those in need cause the recipients to become ill. Given this difficult scenario, Gersen says that the “the least risky choice is to toss [the food].” Rather than filling up empty stomachs, Uncle Sam’s meals are piling up in garbage dumps. Now, how does this fact specifically affect the millions of hungry youth in America?
Food insecurity, which means that households don’t have enough food, looks different now than it did during the 1930’s Depression era. Over 50% of hungry households are white with at least one job-holding parent present, and many families are married and own a house. As opposed to having a gaunt, anorexic appearance, families even tend to lean on the overweight side. By all traditional measures, they appear to be affluent and well-provided. However, Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at the City of University of New York, emphasizes, “This is not your grandmother’s hunger. Today more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined.” Without a sufficient salary, people like Christina Dreir, a white homeowning wife and mother, must choose the cheaper and more filling albeit less healthy food options, leading to obesity. Her husband works overtime to be able to purchase groceries, so often, her bills don’t get paid punctually. Ultimately, food is the top priority for their family because, as Drier puts it, “We have to eat, you know. We can’t starve.”
A lack of sustenance results in more than just stomach pain for children. Rather, it brings detrimental effects that a child may carry for the rest of his/her life. Studies show that malnourished children 3 years old or under face a serious lack of developmental and motor skills. Physically, these children are more likely to be hospitalized and suffer from conditions like anemia, which causes dizziness and exhaustion ,as well as asthma and, as mentioned before, obesity. Lynn McIntyre and her team of researchers at the University of Calgary found that these children are also mentally affected, as they’re more likely to develop depressive symptoms. To further illustrate hunger’s ramifications, a woman in the UK named Kerry Wright struggled to put food on the table for her children after her partner left her. Wright’s housework jobs weren’t paying enough, so her kids watched her voluntarily starve herself to get the family to the next meal. In retrospect, she acknowledges how traumatic this experience was for her kids, adding that, “Kids shouldn’t be worrying about their parents like that.” These physical and mental stressors explain why children battling with hunger often don’t finish school, which is a tremendous misfortune considering secondary education’s major role in future employment prospects. These children are our next generation, whether rich or poor. When they don’t receive three square meals like they should, our future as a nation also suffers.
The issue of food deserts plays a key factor in which areas of the United States are the hardest hit by the hunger issue. Food deserts are places where fresh food and supermarkets are farther away and less accessible than fast-food chains. Mississippi, for instance, contains the highest percentage of food-insecure households (20.8%) in the United States due to the fact that much of Mississippi is rural and suburban, while metropolitan areas, which contain public transportation, tend to be more food-secure. Outside of Houston, Texas, the poor have been pushed to the suburbs as the cost of urban housing has increased. The Jefferson family, for example, has three adults with full-time jobs, yet the government must still provide them with food stamps to supplement their low wages. Unfortunately, these food stamps can’t always be redeemed at supermarkets, so take-out boxes and canned beans fill up their refrigerator instead of fresh produce. For Stallings who lives in Missouri, another troubled area, fighting hunger is difficult “because we don’t have any major industry here. The ultimate way [to solve hunger issues] is to connect them to employment” because, ideally, this would break the vicious cycle that ensnares food-insecure households.
Despite what these heartbreaking stories suggest, there’s hope for the hunger dilemma in the US because the percentage of food-insecure households (which reached a high of 11% of food-insecure households during the 2008 recession when many were out of work) dipped down to below 8% in 2015. In large part, credit for these improvements should go to people, like Stallings, who offer practical and effective help. For example, inspired by New York University’s efforts to bring leftover food to homeless shelters., a man named Robert Lee founded a company called “Rescuing Leftover Cuisine,” which delivers uneaten restaurant food to food kitchens. Lee reports that “[RLC rescued] 1 million pounds of food in 2018 alone.” In this way, positive actions of places like NYU can have a domino effect on normal people like Robert Lee and push them to do what they can in their communities. Additionally, national organizations like “Feeding America” are working to provide people with nutritious, unprocessed food to sufficiently sustain them. “No Kid Hungry” provides summer programs and school breakfasts for struggling children and “Blessings in a Backpack” allows children to bring meals home over the weekend. These children are not alone, but the work isn’t over yet.
The fight against childhood hunger works best when everyone lends a helping hand. Jesus Was Homeless is ultimately supported by volunteers who, Bryan Stallings notices, tend to foster strong communities. “They’re building a circle of friends and relationships,” he says. “And this is huge.” After all, if life isn’t meant to be lived alone, then food insecurity shouldn’t be an individual but a national issue.
The hope of many struggling parents, like Dreir and Wright, is that their children will one day not have to worry about receiving sufficient food and clothes. However, the American dream becomes more of a fantasy and less of a reality for them without the proper resources. With the newfound knowledge of the gravity of this debilitating issue, the next step is to enact change. Who will research about their local food kitchens and find what programs are helping their neighbors? Who will volunteer time or donate money for the cause? Who will make Uncle Sam’s stomach full?
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