Who’s Paying the Price for Hunger in America? You.

Hunger costs every person $542 a year, and the impact on health is huge.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

If you’ve got plenty to eat, hunger might not seem terribly urgent to you. After all, everywhere you look there are 99-cent stores and “value meals” at fast-food chains. When food is so cheap, how is it not possible to get something to eat, right?

But the truth is a shocking one in six Americans are “food insecure,” which means they often don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and they’re hungry. That’s 50 million Americans and 17 million children, a jump of 30 percent—about 12 million more people—since the economic downturn started, according to the Center for American Progress’ 2011 report Hunger in America.

Perhaps most frightening is that those numbers have still not peaked: Hunger is on the rise in America, and if you think it’s not affecting you, you’re wrong. It’s costing all of us—whether we’re hungry or not—big bucks. Our tab for America’s growing hunger problem? About $542 per year, according to the Hunger in America report. 

“Of course, the average American doesn’t receive a real bill for these costs,” write the report’s authors. “Instead the costs are reflected in taxes, our contributions to charities that address hunger, and the costs paid directly and indirectly for the poor health condition of those who are hungry and their lower productivity.”

The CAP report also reveals that food insecurity cost the United States at least $167.5 billion in 2010, the year data was analyzed for the report. 

Here are the biggest ways the cost of hunger hurts us:

  • Lost productivity as a result of hunger’s impact on kids’ and young adults’ education: The CAP report estimates that hunger resulted in lost-productivity costs of $19.3 billion in 2010. These costs occur because food-insecure students miss school or drop out of school to work. High school dropouts earn $260,000 less over a career compared to high school graduates or those with a GED.
  • More expensive public education: Children from food-insecure households are 50 percent more likely to miss school days, twice as likely to be suspended, and 50 percent as likely to have to repeat a grade.
  • Avoidable healthcare costs: Hunger-related healthcare costs for 2010 are estimated at a $130.5 billion tab paid by Americans.

“Putting a dollar value on this helps people understand the magnitude of the problem,” Donald S. Shepard, a co-author of the CAP report and professor at the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy, Brandeis University, tells TakePart. “People with food insecurity are at increased risk of a whole host of serious problems, such as depression and, ironically, obesity. The nature of our country’s food insecurity problem is different than food insecurity in other nations.”

Some other ways that being hungry affects health and drives up costs:

  • Higher risk of mental health disorders
  • Higher risk of iron deficiency and other nutritional deficiencies
  • More headaches, stomachaches, respiratory illnesses, and hospitalizations
  • More missed work time
  • More deaths from premature infants (due to poor nutrition in pregnancy)
  • A greater likelihood of being unable to keep up with household responsibilities (which may require paid workers or relatives or friends to step in to help)

The toll on the nation is also reflected in the charities that devote time and resources to fighting hunger: $17.8 billion in 2010. According to a study released by Feeding America in 2010, emergency food programs, such as food banks, served 37 million people. Costs include the annual operating cost of food pantries, kitchens, and shelters, including payroll and volunteers’ time but not the value of the food.

“We have a safety net system of food banks and soup kitchens that try to mitigate the adverse impact of hunger,” Shepard says. “But it’s a kind of patchwork system. It uses up substantial donations from individuals and from companies that generously make the food available. If we didn’t have food insecurity, those charitable activities could go elsewhere.”

RELATED: More Stories of Hunger in America

Perhaps most shocking is that the total cost to the nation in hunger does not even include the $94 billion price tag of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“SNAP makes a very important contribution,” Shepard says. “Without it, the problem would be worse. But data by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that despite the government program, there is still a very substantial number of people facing food insecurity.”

Solutions to food insecurity should rely on a mix of federal policies that improve economic conditions, such as raising the wages of the lowest-wage earners and increasing access to full-time employment, the report suggests. “In part, food insecurity is a symptom of economic malaise,” Shepard says. “The country is unfortunately still in an economic slowdown. This is one of the symptoms of it. One important solution is that whatever steps we can take to get the economy moving will help reduce this problem.”

Where you surprised to see how big the impact of hunger is on the U.S.? What do you the best solutions are to lower rates of “food insecurity”?

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