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"Race, Poverty and Hunger,"

by Alison Leff July/August 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Hunger and the implications of hunger strike hard at the core of low-income and minority communities. Ending hunger will solve not just a nutrition problem but will take America one step closer to its promise of a nation “created equal.” The problems of hunger and food insecurity are devastatingly widespread. In 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 11 million households were food-insecure. Thirty-three million people (12% of all Americans) lived in these households. Over 23 million people accessed the resources of America’s soup kitchens and food pantries in 2001.

Low-income and minority persons are more likely to suffer from food insecurity. Food insecurity affects 35% of low-income households. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), a household’s chances of being hungry or food-insecure decrease as income rises. People of color also feel the pains of hunger disproportionately. According to the USDA, African-American and Hispanic households face food insecurity and hunger rates three times as high as those of white households. And African-American and Hispanic children confront higher rates of chronic hunger (46% and 40%, respectively) than do white children (16%). The disproportionate number of people of color who suffer from food insecurity and hunger comes partially from the fact that poverty is racialized. According to the 2000 Census, 47% of those living in poverty are white, 26% are African-American and 23% are Hispanic, while in the general population whites make up 72%, African-Americans 12% and Hispanics 11% of the population.

There are two main responses to the blight of hunger in a nation of such plenty. Government programs are the first safety net. The government’s main defense against hunger is the Food Stamp Program. There are 17 million Food Stamp recipients, 46% of whom are white, 33% African-American and 17% Hispanic. Other government efforts include the Women, Children and Infants (WIC) Program and school feeding programs. In 2000, WIC provided nutritious foods and nutrition services for approximately 7.2 million pregnant low-income women and their infants and children each month. The National School Lunch Program serves more than 27 million meals every school day, in 95% of the nation's public and private schools. The more recent, and less widespread, School Breakfast Program feeds 7.7 million children each school day. These school feeding programs are available at reduced rates for households with incomes below 185% of the federal poverty line and are free for families with incomes under 130% of the federal poverty level. Currently, 14 million of the 26 million students receive their lunches free of charge or at a reduced rate.

The next layer is the emergency food network, meant to catch those who fall through the government safety nets. America’s Second Harvest operates the country’s largest network of charitable food providers, each year supplying 1.7 billion pounds of food to over 200 food banks and food rescue programs which in turn supply 50,000 soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. According to their latest study, Hunger in America 2001, the 23.3 million people served by America’s Second Harvest’s emergency food network represented a 9% increase from 1997. Forty-five percent of their clients are white, 35% are African-American and 17% are Hispanic. Other organizations provide emergency food to agencies on the local level but none have the national scope of Second Harvest.

Diet Quality and Food Access

There are many dimensions of food intake. Food insecurity represents not just the lack of enough food, but the lack of nutritiously adequate food. Both socioeconomic status and race have been shown to affect the quality of household diets. The USDA created an index to measure the overall quality of an individual’s diet. Scores from its Healthy Eating Index (HEI) show that individuals’ nutrient content knowledge and diet-health awareness increase with income. Additionally, HEI results are correlated with race: African-Americans and Hispanics have lower HEI scores than whites. USDA research shows that Hispanics and African-Americans are less likely than whites to meet the Recommended Daily Allowances of such nutrients as vitamins A, C and E, calcium and iron. People of color and people with low incomes have lower rates of fruit and vegetable consumption.
Families face socioeconomic barriers that limit their control over their nutrition. Working families can lack the time needed to shop for and cook a full meal; time is even harder to find for single-parent households. This scarcity of time can lead to quick trips to a nearby McDonalds. A study in the International Journal of Obesity showed that low-income individuals and people of color eat fast food more often than others, a dangerous trend, as fast food tends to have high fat and low fiber intakes. When households are faced with tight budgets, they have to stretch their dollar by purchasing less expensive but higher-fat foods. These households tend not to have enough income to allow them to take advantage of bulk purchasing. Nutritious fruits and vegetables are high-cost purchases; as one low-income shopper commented in a study of public housing tenants’ access to quality food, “You can clip a coupon for a can, but you never see a coupon for fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Supermarkets characteristically offer cheaper prices and a larger variety of food options than do smaller food sellers. Low-income and minority neighborhoods are less likely to have supermarkets; their food demands are usually met by more expensive, poorer quality corner stores and convenient marts. Independent central city supermarkets that do exist often charge more than suburban stores because of higher operating costs, less competition and patrons’ lesser mobility, which limits their ability to price-shop. These markets often offer poorer quality, older produce. A USDA study shows that, limited by the type and location of foodstores, low-income and minority households are forced to purchase their groceries at inflated prices. Such access problems produce the paradox that poor Americans pay more for basic nourishment compared with their better-off counterparts.

The Impacts of Hunger and Food Insecurity

Lack of a healthy diet can have serious impacts on a person’s quality of life. The effects on children are well documented. Lower-income children consume more fats and sugars, play outside less and have more health problems. Thus, a complicated situation results whereby children are undernourished but can gain an unhealthy amount of weight. According to the Center on Hunger and Poverty, childhood obesity rates have jumped to 11% nationally. African-American and Hispanic children suffer from higher rates of obesity, according to the American Obesity Association. Childhood hunger and obesity can limit children’s growth, restrict brain development and reduce immune function (thereby increasing illness rates). Food-insecure children are more likely to be tardy or absent from school. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reports that insufficient food limits a child’s ability to interact with others and his/her surroundings. This is especially damaging in schools, where hunger has a debilitating effect on children’s learning, concentration and ability to perform basic tasks.

Hunger has serious impacts on adults as well. Workers are likely to experience a lack of concentration (increasing on-the-job injuries) and lesser productivity. Those suffering from hunger and malnutrition also face increased probabilities of having chronic and acute diseases. Poor diet and physical inactivity are major causes of heart disease, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure and diabetes. These conditions can also speed the onset of degenerative diseases among the elderly. Emotional consequences of food insecurity can include family tension, anxiety, low self-esteem and hostility.

Immediate Needs in the Fight Against Hunger and Food Insecurity

Broad measures must be taken to strengthen America’s current responses to food insecurity. Government feeding programs should focus on expanding participation. To be eligible for the Food Stamp Program, a household cannot have a net income higher than the federal poverty line (currently $17,652 for a family of four) and must meet certain work and asset requirements. Food Stamp Program participation is declining: FNS statistics show participation rates have fallen 22% since 1996. A shocking 43% of those income-eligible for the program are not participating. Confusion over the tighter eligibility requirements of the 1996 welfare reforms has led some people to mistakenly believe they are no longer eligible. According to FNS, while participation rates for eligibles are higher in communities of color, the decline in participation rates since 1996 has been steeper for African-American and Hispanic eligibles than it has been for white eligibles. Food Stamp outreach to help explain the program’s complicated rules and regulations must be expanded (program simplification would also help).

According to FRAC, Food Stamp benefits provide an average individual 78¢ a meal. Raising the minimum monthly amount of Food Stamps for which a household is eligible from $10 to $25 (an attempt to do this during the recent Food Stamp reauthorization failed in Congress) would give many households more “buying power” at the grocery store and encourage participation. Progress on participation is being made: In the most recent reauthorization, Congress restored the Food Stamp benefits to legal immigrants that had been limited by 1996 welfare reform.

School feeding programs are key tools for lowering childhood hunger and obesity. These programs help provide school children the recommended amounts of key nutrients and teach children healthy eating patterns. For many students, these feeding programs are the most nutritious, and, for some, perhaps the only, food they receive during a day. Research shows that low-income children who participate in the School Breakfast Program have higher standardized test scores and are tardy and absent less than low-income students who do not eat breakfast at school. Making school feeding programs universal — offering meals at no charge to all children, regardless of income — would enable all children to receive the positive results of the program and relieve any stigma associated with participation (a factor that likely deters many students). Currently, the 14 million students who receive free or reduced-price meals are eligible to receive two meals a day during the summer months as well, through the Summer Food Service Program. However, last summer the program, funded by USDA and operated by summer camps, churches and community centers, reached only two million youth. This greatly underutilized summer feeding program must be expanded by reaching out to youth-serving organizations in order to help them apply for the funds available to them.

While Second Harvest’s network is critical in offering emergency supplies to households in need, the food provided leaves much to be desired nutritionally. Kitchens and pantries distribute what is donated to them by corporations (which receive a healthy tax break) and food drives, the “leftovers” of society. There is little produce and a plethora of unhealthy snacks. An agricultural program recently created in Ohio, coordinated by the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, brings agricultural surpluses into foodbanks, aiding Ohio farmers and bringing quality fruits and vegetables into soup kitchens and food pantries. The issue of nutritionally healthy foods is of growing concern in some school districts as well – in support of their feeding programs, some districts in California and Texas are phasing out machine sales of soda and junk foods in order to encourage children to eat healthier.

Long-Term Solutions to Hunger and Food Insecurity

Currently, America uses the Food Stamp Program and the emergency food system to address the symptoms of food insecurity and hunger, not the causes. Such band-aid solutions will never end hunger, only soften its blow. The eradication of hunger will come when households have access to affordable, nutritious food and are educated as to what makes up a healthy diet.

Access to quality food in low-income and minority neighborhoods is a major challenge. The locations and pricing structures of supermarkets need to be closely examined, and measures enacted that allow for more nutritious and efficient spending patterns. WIC and WIC Farmers’ Markets have the potential to increase food access for vulnerable populations of women and children, helping mothers to feed their children right from the start. The WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program slowly is being expanded across the United States and needs to be promoted and spread more effectively. Local growers bring produce to central city farmers’ markets, where women can use their WIC benefits. This program, and other community-run markets, can go far in helping low-income and minority participants gain access to the fruits and vegetables they need as part of a balanced diet, at the same time aiding local growers.

Community education and outreach are important tools for improving the purchasing and consumption patterns of low-income and minority communities. Small classes taught by peers and educators, focusing on health, nutrition and cooking tips, taking into account tight budgets and children’s tastes, are a great start. Share Our Strength, a national anti-hunger organization, conducts such a program: Operation Frontline. Local nutritionists, chefs and community leaders lead classes for children and families on cooking, nutrition and food budgeting skills. The classes have been shown to increase health awareness and budgeting abilities. They are taught on a local level so as to make them culturally relevant. Such successful programs that help address complicated food access and cultural competency issues must be expanded.

These solutions address the food side of hunger, but it is important to address the economics of hunger as well. The main problem of hunger is not a lack of food; it is the lack of money with which to buy food, the lack of a car to reach the supermarket, the lack of time to cook a nutritious meal for a whole family.

Thirty-nine percent of households who access emergency food resources have one or more working adults, and yet are unable to earn enough to feed their families. Households will not be able to break the hold of hunger without a livable wage that allows them to earn enough money to purchase quality food. Livable wages will allow individuals to work more reasonable hours, leaving them the money with which to buy food, and the time to shop and cook healthy meals (instead of taking the nutritionally vacuous fast-food “quick fix”). Other supports for working families, such as child-care subsidies and health care, need to be reinforced. Racial wage discrimination must be addressed to moderate the disproportionate burden of poverty on people of color. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, African-American and Hispanic men earn 78% and 63%, respectively, of what white men make, and the numbers for women are likewise discouraging. Policies that address such disparities will allow all individuals to work and save, the best anti-hunger strategies out there.

Along with food, the other main cost for households is housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wages are falling further and further behind rapidly rising housing prices, making affordable housing hard to find. A vast increase in quality affordable housing would be a great boon to families struggling to keep food on their tables.
The end of hunger will come only when we feed the full range of physical, emotional and economic needs of those suffering from hunger and food insecurity. Currently, the burden of hunger falls disproportionately on the shoulders of those with limited incomes and people of color. In working towards a hunger-free America, and indeed, a hunger-free world (hunger problems in the US pale in comparison to those in underdeveloped economies: In southern Africa alone, some 13 million people are at risk of starvation in the next few months), we must, as David Shields asserts in his book The Color of Hunger, “conceptualize malnutrition as a civil rights issue and racism as an issue of public health.”


Alison Leff ( is currently serving as PRRAC’s Mickey Leland – Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow. She graduated from Brown University in 2001 with a degree in Public Policy.


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