Synopsis: Forty-nine million people in the US are food insecure– often unsure they’ll have three decent meals per day. The poor are also often forced to purchase foods that are poor in nutrition, which leads to high rates of obesity. Experts discuss reasons for food insecurity, outcomes, and a variety of inventive solutions.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Ross Fraser, Director of Media Relations, Feeding America; Leanne Brown, author, Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4 a Day; Susan Topping, Senior Director of Partners and Programs, Capital Area Food Bank, Washington, DC

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Food Insecurity

Reed Pence: It’s Thanksgiving week. So, whether you’re the shopper, the chef, or the dinner guest, food is on everyone’s mind in a big way. But for the 49 million people in the United States that live in food insecure households, food is always on their mind, because they don’t get enough of it.

Ross Fraser: We don’t have literal hunger in the United States where people are actually dying from malnutrition. That really doesn’t exist here. What we do have is food insecurity, which means that people are unable to access three healthy square meals a day.

Pence: That’s Ross Fraser, Director of Media Relations for Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the United States.

Fraser: And especially for children and seniors that’s a tremendous problem. One in five children in America is currently food insecure and there can be terrible ramifications for their health when that happens. They simply will not develop physically, mentally, emotionally. Very young children who experience food insecurity and hunger and are not properly nourished, we have been told by the researchers that work for us that lack of adequate nutrition can literally change the architecture of the brain. Things get better a year later and Dad’s making money and the family can eat well, the damage has already been done.

Pence:  According to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C., more than 45 million people in the United States receive benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It’s often referred to as the food stamp program.

Fraser: The average food stamp benefit is about $1.50 per person per meal. With the cut in food stamps in November of last year, that has gone down to about $1.40 per person per meal. If you ever go to a grocery store at midnight on the last day of any given month, you will find that that grocery store has full staffing and lots of inventory. I was in a grocery store recently and I said to someone, “It’s midnight. Why are there so many people here?” And the cashier said, “It’s because everyone just got their food stamps reloaded.” Everybody is out of food stamps by the second or third week of any given month, so this is the time they go shopping at midnight on the last day of the month. Stores all over the country prepare for this with staff and inventory.

Pence:  One of the cruel ironies of poverty and hunger is that many people living in food insecure households are overweight or obese.  

Fraser: We call this the hunger obesity paradox and often obesity will hide hunger because obesity is the result of making poor choices about the food that you’re putting in your body, not just in terms of quantity, but the quality of the food that you’re consuming. So, if someone is eating a lot of prepared food, a lot of food that has little protein, but lots of fat, lots of sodium, lots of sugar, they’re likely to develop health problems, including obesity. It be lovely if everyone in America could go home at night and prepare a boneless chicken breast, fresh asparagus, real potatoes, bread, a lovely dinner salad for their family. That’s the not reality for millions of Americans.

Leann Brown: There are 46 million people in the country who are eating on as little as $4 a day, people who are on food stamps, or who just don’t have a lot of money to work with. Everyone deserves to eat well.

Pence:  That’s Leanne Brown, author of the new cookbook Good And Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4 a Day. It started out as her graduate thesis in the food studies program at New York University. But when she actually posted her recipes on line, they went viral in a matter of days. Because prepared and processed foods are more expensive than basic staple ingredients, her recipes feature meals made from scratch. However, Brown’s cookbook comes with the caveat that the costs for each recipe are meant as a guideline, not a guarantee. In fact, nearly half the recipes in her book exceed the $4 a day guideline.

Brown: I’m lucky enough I don’t have to be living on such a strict budget, but I do tend to think in terms of value. I’d rather buy butter than these cheaper oils and a bunch of stuff that I’m not really going to use.

Topping: The number one barrier that people say why they’re not eating healthier foods is that they say it’s too expensive.

Pence:  That’s Susan Topping, senior director of Partners and Programs for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. One of the programs they facilitate is a national program called Cooking Matters. It’s a six-week course led by nutrition experts in grocery stores around the country. Participants learn the basics of nutrition, such as how to increase fiber and lower sugar and fat content in their diets. They also learn how to budget, shop and cook healthy meals.

Topping: We evaluate the persons who are going through the program and at the end of the course we are asking them questions about how has this changed what’s in your shopping cart? And from our data, and actually its consistent with national data from our cooking matters programming, 67% increase in how many people are buying more vegetables. You’re eating better than you were, but still the problem remains that people don’t have adequate funds to be able to purchase the healthy foods that they’d like for their families.

Pence:  The latest Hunger in America report agrees. Feeding America generates the report every four years, with survey results of 60,000 interviews with people at food pantries and soup kitchens across the country. One of the questions on the survey is this: “Do you knowingly purchase unhealthy, inexpensive food high in sodium and fat and low in protein because you can’t afford to buy something more healthy like a chicken breast?”

Fraser: Eighty percent of the people we asked said yes, because what they have to do is fill the belly’s of their household without worrying about the consequences of eating unhealthy food. Another question that we asked is, “Do you ever have to water down food or beverages to extend the amount of food that you have to feed your children?” Forty percent said yes. So, we have many mothers in America who are secretly watering down milk that they’re giving to their children because they can’t afford the price of a gallon of milk. Or they’re serving meatloaf that’s more breadcrumbs than meat, because they’ve got to make whatever meager amounts of protein they get their hands on last.

Pence:  Each year, Feeding America provides four billion pounds of food to people at risk. Fraser says that while most of the food is donated, food banks often have to buy rice and beans, because there’s never an adequate quantity of those items.

Fraser: We now receive more then a billion pounds of food each year from the grocery industry, food that’s reaching its sell date. More importantly, we’re rescuing more than a billion pounds of fresh produce every year. So, we are able to get fresh fruits and fresh vegetables that once upon a time would have been left to rot in the fields or been plowed under. It may not be the prettiest tomato in the world, but it’s still nutritious and safe. And we’re able to get that to people in need.

Pence:  However, the challenges of moving fresh produce quickly from donor to consumer are enormous.

Fraser: In many parts of the country people live in remote and rural areas. We know from one of our earlier studies that virtually 40% of the people we serve don’t have access to a working automobile. So, if you live, for example, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and there’s one grocery store, one major supermarket, you could easily live in that city and be 10 miles away from the grocery store. You’re unemployed, you don’t have a car, you’re on food stamps. Where are you going to get your groceries? You’re going to walk to a mini mart, which may have a few apples and oranges and some fresh fruit to allow them to accept EBT cards, but you’re going to pay more for the food and it will more likely be shelf stable food, which is high in sodium, high in fat, low in nutritional value. You’re not going to find fresh chicken or fresh asparagus at a corner mini-mart that basically is in business to sell gasoline.

Pence:  But that’s Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fraser says he’s often asked where is the largest population of hungry people in the United States?

Fraser: What we found from our research is that there is hunger in virtually every community in the nation. Something that’s interesting about Los Angeles County, for example, Los Angeles is the richest and the poorest county in our nation. They have more then a million people living at risk of hunger in Los Angeles alone. Loudoun County, Virginia, is another good example. Loudoun County is a very, very, very wealthy suburb just outside of Washington, D.C. The food pantry that serves Loudoun County has seen the demand for emergency food quadruple in the last five years. So, hunger is everywhere in the United States.

Topping: I’ve traveled a lot in a lot of different third world countries and I was blown away by what I was seeing right outside of our nation’s capital. If you go down Route One corridor, and people who live in this area will know what I’m talking about. So, it’s this major highway that goes down from the city through Virginia. And if you’re driving on that road you can’t see what’s just off the road. And what’s just off the road is a number of trailer parks. We don’t have an institution, we don’t have the Boys and Girls Club, we don’t have a YMCA, we don’t have the church that was right there right next to the trailer park that the kids can go and make sure that they have food, that their families can go and make sure they had food. So, the team was creative and said, Okay, what’s the best way to get food to these people? And knowing that the kids weren’t in school and there were a large number of kids at theses sites, we realized, okay, the summer food service program. We’re going to make sure that these meals get to these kids.

Pence:  The Capital Area Food Bank partnered with various organizations and retrofitted an old school bus to take food to the trailer parks.

Topping: I was there the first day and what I was saying to my team was so many of these programs you’ve got to let the word of mouth really take off. Although we had blanketed the area and said we’re going to be here on this day, this is the first day of the program. We’re going to be here with a bus and lunches and families come on out. I said, Don’t have your expectations too high for how many people are going to come. And on the first day we pull up to this first trailer park and there are already 40 people as soon as we drive in, in line and it blew me away. Hunger hurts our community. Hunger robs children of a chance to learn. It weakens immune systems of seniors and it undermines health. Without the education, without the health, people aren’t able to work and work as well, they’re not able to work as hard. It hurts our community overall.

Pence:  With the help of food pantries and soup kitchens around the country, many families who are food insecure will still have nutritious food filling their plates this Thanksgiving. But that’s just one meal. The day after Thanksgiving, when many of us will be starting our Christmas shopping, millions of others will go right back to being food insecure. You can learn more about how to donate food and volunteer for food pantries in your area by visiting the websites Feeding America dot org and Share Our Strength dot org. Leanne Brown says for every copy of her cookbook Good and Cheap that’s sold, a copy will be donated to someone in need. You can find her website at You can find more about all of our guests by visiting our website…  Radio health I’m Reed Pence.

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