Leading Social Change

A PhD student thinking about lessons learned, ideals created and fortified, and change to be created.

Food or Famine: Food Insecurity in the United States.



For most Americans — the idea of hunger conjures up a photo of a modern day Christian missionary in sub-sahara Africa.  The man or woman is pleading with you to open your purse and sponsor a child for a few cents a day.  Then they pan to a small child who looks completely emaciated and devastated. Videos like the one above are truly heartbreaking. However, is this the only face of hunger?  Is this the only face of people who are searching for their next meal?  No.

“I have enough to pay my rent, but not enough for food.” –“Who’s Hungry in America” Second Harvest

There are people right here in the greatest Nation, who are hungry and/or food insecure.  As of 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has introduced language to describe various ranges of food security and insecurity.  The USDA now defines food insecurity as: “the condition assessed in the food security survey and represented in USDA food security reports–is a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”  Hunger is defined by the USDA as: “an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.” (Source: USDA Economic Research Service, “Definition of Food Security“)   The ranges the USDA has adopted are as follows:

Food Security: High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations; Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications–typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake. Food Insecurity: Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.  Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. [SOURCE]

Further, the USDA breaks down the characteristics of food insecurity: “The defining characteristic of very low food security is that, at times during the year, the food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food. Very low food security can be characterized in terms of the conditions that households in this category typically report in the annual food security survey.

  • 99 percent reported having worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
  • 97 percent reported that the food they bought just did not last and they did not have money to get more.
  • 95 percent reported that they could not afford to eat balanced meals.
  • 97 percent reported that an adult had cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food.
  • 91 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more months.
  • 95 percent of respondents reported that they had eaten less than they felt they should because there was not enough money for food.
  • 65 percent of respondents reported that they had been hungry but did not eat because they could not afford enough food.
  • 48 percent of respondents reported having lost weight because they did not have enough money for food.
  • 27 percent reported that an adult did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.
  • 21 percent reported that this had occurred in 3 or more months.

All households without children that were classified as having very low food security reported at least six of these conditions, and 66 percent reported seven or more. Food-insecure conditions in households with children followed a similar pattern. [Emphasis added — SOURCE]”


For many people, the issues of food insecurity is coming to light thanks to a new documentary.  A Place at the Table is a 2012 documentary film discussing hunger in America.  It was released in March 2013, and is created by the same makers of the documentary Food, Inc.  The film discusses the millions of American’s who do not know where their next meal is coming from — American’s who are the faces of hunger and food insecurity — but look very little like the children of sub-sahara Africa.  American children who have developmental disorders due to malnutrition (think speech delay, hearing issues, constant illness, and various other diseases); who are obese due to poor nutrition, who have trouble performing in school due to hunger.  The film follows several people struggling with food insecurity: 

  • Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two children [photo below on left];
  • Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school [photo below center] ; and
  • Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health problems are exacerbated by the largely-empty calories her hard-working mother can afford. [SOURCE]\

This movie is not showing in Southwestern Virginia — but it may be purchased to rent through Amazon’s Instant Video or iTunes.

Barbie and her Kids



So What:

In 2011 50.1 million American’s lived in food-insecure households.  That broke down to 12.1 million adults living with very low food security; 8.6 million children living in food-insecure households [where both adults and children were food insecure].  Most families try to protect their children by feeding them before the adults in the household — so in 2011 845,000 children (or 1.1% of the nations children) resided in food insecure households among children (meaning a child may go hungry).  Here in America, rates of food insecurity were higher than the national average (14.9%) for households with children (20.6%); households with children headed by a single woman (36.8%); households with children headed by a single man (24.9%); Black, non-hispanic households (25.1%); Hispanic households (26.2%) and Low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (34.5 percent; the Federal poverty line was $22,811 for a family of four in 2011) (Source: USDA Economic Research Services, Key Statistics & Graphics) .


Even for families who do receive financial assistance for food — they still can find themselves insecure and hungry.  For a family of three (3) to qualify for food stamps (e.g. SNAP benefits) they must make UNDER $24, 000.  Their average SNAP benefits will only provide them with $3 per day to feed their families.   According to “A Place at the Table” an average of 44 million americans are on SNAP benefits    One of the followed families in the documentary film is in the clip below — talking about how it is difficult to not only qualify for SNAP but to survive on it.

Barbie and her kids are an interesting story.  Barbie lost her job, and had to get on some sort of subsidy to feed her family.  Yet, prior to that, she was making a mear $9.00 per hour.  With her two children, she sought some assistance prior to loosing her job.  She spent seven (7) hours in the welfare office only to be told that she was $2.00 over the limit to get any sort of assistance.  It was only AFTER she lost her job that she obtained SNAP benefits   Towards the end of the documentary film, Barbie was able to obtain employment again.  She was so excited about working.   Yet a month or so later — the reality of employment had set in for her.  By simplly getting a job — what the greater “we” all want her to do — she ended up loosing her subsidized child care, her children’s guaranteed meals at the daycare,  and her SNAP benefits.  You see her empty fridge, her empty cubbords, and her tears as she tries to figure out what to do.  Yet why are “we” surprised when families then end up either loosing their jobs or perhaps even quitting to obtain promised meals for their children again?

Now What:

“The maid who makes your bed in the hotel when you’re out of town, the person who makes your coffee at McDonald’s, most of these people will qualify for food stamps.”– Ross Frasier

So what do we do about food insecurity?   Previously I’ve written about the problems with minimum wage.  Currently, the federal minimum wage  is $7.25 per hour.  In his article “A Paycheck Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Go Hungry in America,” author Mathew Fleischer states: “[i]f you worked 40 hours per week at this rate, every week, without a day off, that would equal just over $15,000 per year—or $1,256 per month. That puts you well within eligibility for food stamps in most states across America.”  Further, Feeding America states that 36% of the households its food banks helps has at least one working adult.  Additionally, in 2011 Feeding America reportes that 5.1 percent of all U.S. households (6.1 million households) accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or more times. In addition, 57.2 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major Federal food assistance programs –Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. [Source: Feeding America].   A Place at the Table lists some organizations that are making a difference: http://www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table/alliances.   Further, groups like Feeding America and Second Harvest have food banks nationally.  Churches and other nonprofits like the United Way are also helping to resolve food insecurity — but this is all temporary.  

Sometimes leading social change must begin and end with legislation.  Meaningful legislation.  A Place at the Table discussed the most recent re-up of the Child Nutrition Act.  Within that act there was a push for increased funding when it comes to free meal assistance provided to school aged children.  At the time, the US subsidized school meals at $2.68 each meal.  However, once labor and other expenses were removed — schools were trying to feed children for roughly $0.90-$1.00 per meal.  Sadly, our politicians bowed down to pressures from the agricultural lobbyist for big farms, who did not wish to see any of their subsidies taken way.  The “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act” was passed — yet it only increased the funding for school subsidized meals by $4.5 billion dollars over ten years.  That increase makes the total meal subsidy now a whopping $2.74 per meal (a HUGE $0.06 increase per meal).  Compare that increase to what we spend on TARP and the Bush-Era tax cuts.   Further, that increase was only done because the increase was paid for.  How?  Over 1/2 of the Healthy Kids Act was paid for by cutting SNAP benefits.  So our legislature robbed from the poor, to give to the poor.  [Source: San Antonio Current and A Place at the Table]

"A Place at the Table" Screen Shot -- Funds vs Child Nutrition Act

So where are the change agents?  Does it take a hollywood style film for change to occur?  What do we do if there are no effective change agents, no effective organizational change?   Perhaps the point of this exercise is to write only about topics where the “now what” features a success story.  Someone from one of our required reading books who used Organizational Change, Civic Entrepreneurial tactics, or the KAI and found success   However, I want to propose to the class that there are problems that may not have had a successful conclusion as of yet.  Problems that are “wicked” as my discipline — Public Administration — would refer to them as.  Problems where personalities and organizational change may not be enough.  How do you solve the issues of hunger in a society where we view struggling single moms of color as free riders?  Where we have this iconic view of the family farmer, but we subsidize big farm business like Monsanto’s GMO soybeans and Perdues factory chicken farms?   How do we persuade a business to move into a food drought community when the bottom-line cost/benefit analysis says that it isn’t a prudent business move?  How do we create a smaller government, when so many people need assistance in one of the most basic areas of survival — food?  How do we create change in an environment that wants to quickly reject the necessary steps to foster it?


2 thoughts on “Food or Famine: Food Insecurity in the United States.

  1. Pingback: Public Administration Change: Education and Homelessness | Leading Social Change

  2. Pingback: Public Administration, Homelessness, Children and Public Education — What a Cluster…. | Hot Pink, High Heels, & Explosions

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