A shadow of hunger looms

The New York Times Magazine is the latest major publication to publish a detailed analysis of the deepening food insecurity crisis facing the United States. In a major September 2 report, they write:

A shadow of hunger looms over the United States. In the pandemic economy, nearly one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat. The lockdown, with its epic lines at food banks, has revealed what was hidden in plain sight: that the struggle to make food last long enough, and to get food that’s healthful — what experts call ‘food insecurity’ — is a persistent one for millions of Americans.

The report followed major disruptions from COVID-19, to some of the worst affected food insecure parts of the country. Labor force participation as low as 53% and a lack of rapid adaptive response measures means some parts of the US are seeing the worst incidence of hunger since the Great Depression.

Structural income inequality is making it worse

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States was already experiencing a shocking level of income inequality, economic marginalization, and resilience failure. In 2017, a United Nations Special Rapporteur found extreme poverty in the US was becoming a threat to human rights. Philip Alston’s report found:

  • Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.
  • US inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries
  • Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA. It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection.
  • The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.
  • In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.
  • America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly five times the OECD average.
  • The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.

COVID is exacerbating all of the drivers

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains and incomes—half of all US households have lost some or all of their income since March—food insecurity is becoming dangerously commonplace. Some estimates suggest as many as 38% of Americans are now living without reliable ongoing food security. 38% of the US population is 125.4 million people.

This is a serious resilience intelligence concern, which can be framed by asking the following questions:

  • Do financial markets (and the incentives they chase) understand what is creating this pervasive economic and nutrition insecurity?
  • Do policy-makers have adequate understanding of the signals of this kind of resilience failure?
  • Where is that information most readily available, and can such insights be accessed without complex integration of disparate data systems?
  • Are the “efficiencies” policy and finance seek to incentivize actually inefficiencies that leave the American food system vulnerable?
  • How does the health of natural systems (climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, watersheds) affect food system resilience?

What we know is that the United States is not, at this moment, prepared to deliver comprehensive solutions that would solve this worsening food insecurity crisis. No policy under consideration by the current administration will adjust economy-wide incentives to ensure an affordable path to universal food security in the US.

Given the scale of the pandemic recession—57 million seeking unemployment assistance, more than 190,000 people killed, healthcare systems under extreme pressure, and new waves of layoffs looming as supply chains “optimize” for a new way of working, and leaner revenues—there is no easy way to stimulate the economy to correct this crisis. Some are calling for at least temporary universal basic income; some are calling for major financial sector reform, to ensure financial market trends are not so detached from the everyday economy as to work against sustainable prosperity on Main Street.

The US needs a serious shift in aims & incentives

The US needs to shift from where it is now—where incentives are designed to exacerbate income inequality, food insecurity, and dangerous levels of metabolic illness—to an economy that builds resilience routinely, through everyday activities, expenditures, and investments. Cities, states, and federal agencies, need to work together to map the solutions, and move quickly to ensure both flexibility and inclusion in distribution of high-quality nutritious food.

The cost of failing will be hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost. Food security, income growth, climate resilience, and sustainable finance, are all aligned. It’s time to start rebuilding for a better future, without further delay.

UPDATE—October 4, 2020

Feeding America warns of 8 billion meal shortfall at US food banks through June 2021

According to a new report from Feeding America:

  • As of July 2020, Feeding America estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will be an unprecedented 17 billion pounds, more than three times the food bank network’s last annual distribution of 5 billion pounds.
  • Feeding America anticipates 7 billion pounds in food supply next year, largely driven anticipated by federal commodities like Section 32 bonus commodity purchases and other USDA food purchases.
  • This could lead to a 10 billion pound shortfall between now and June of 2021 – the equivalent of 8 billion meals.

Featured photo by Joel Muniz