Cheat sheet: Myths about hunger in America


By Tracie McMillan

The Chautauquan Daily • July 1, 2014

When we talk about food in America, it’s often to celebrate our abundant agriculture or explore a cuisine. When we talk about hunger, we often turn our eyes abroad to developing nations. But there is a quiet, persistent problem with hunger here at home — and last fallNational Geographic sent me to explore it.

For the magazine’s “Feeding a Hungry Planet” series, I visited three parts of the United States — rural Iowa, suburban Houston and New York City’s Bronx borough. Building on the field work of photographers Amy Toensing, Kitra Cahana and Stephanie Sinclair, I met with food bank directors and elementary school principals; shared meals with families who forage for vegetables in the woods and families who subsist on food bank mac and cheese; and talked to experts from around the country.

Once on the road, some of the most basic ideas I had heard about Americans and food were turned on their head.

This morning, Amy Toensing and I will share stories and images with you from our reporting — some of it will be published in August, and some of it is exclusive to today’s lecture. In the hopes of starting a great conversation, we hereby offer this cheat sheet of the five myths we saw debunked — and invite you to join us in exploring it further:

Myth: America has an obesity problem, not a hunger problem.

With more than two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, it’s tempting to scoff at the notion that anyone is going hungry. But the less money you have, the harder it is to eat healthfully, said Melissa Boteach, director of the Poverty and Prosperity Program Center for American Progress.  There’s “this paradox that hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “People [are] making trade-offs between food that’s filling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity.”

Myth: People who don’t have enough food don’t work.

This might have been true in the mid-20th century with a booming economy and record-high wages, but the story today is very different. More than half of households who are food insecure — the government term describing hunger — have an adult working full-time, and another 16 percent have someone working part-time, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Altogether, 75 percent of food insecure households have a worker in the home.

Myth: The hungry live in inner cities and Appalachia.

Hunger — like poverty — is now a suburban problem. During the recession, hunger is grew faster in the suburbs than cities, with suburban enrollment in SNAP — food stamps — more than doubling during the recession, according to the Brookings Institution.

Myth: Only the destitute are hungry.

In American society, the hungry can be difficult to spot. With trendy throwaway fashion and enough wealthy people casting off used goods, any enterprising person can snag a pair of stylish jeans or a gently used toy for a child. What’s more, many people who lost jobs during the recession may have enough savings to cling to their mortgage and car payment  — but not have enough to buy food at the end of the month. It’s become so common that a sympathetic Republican legislator in Georgia, Renee Unterman, has coined the term “SUV poor.”

Myth: The U.S. is the richest country, so we have less hunger.

Today, there are about 49 million Americans who say they run out of food at least once a year. That’s about 16 percent of us, which means one in six — putting the U.S. at the rock bottom of the pack when it comes to our economic peers, according to a New York Timesanalysis. In many European countries, the ratio of hungry to fed is one in 20.

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