Is Food Insecurity Really on the Decline?

Gallup’s latest poll says it is, but antihunger advocates warn that poverty is still a persistent problem.

(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Nov 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The Gallup poll headline should have elicited cheers from the antihunger community: “Fewer Americans Struggling to Afford Food.” But perhaps the subhead should have read, “Compared with when?”

The percentage of Americans who report struggling to afford food is now 17.2 percent—the lowest food insecurity rate since 2008 and almost two points lower than the five-year high of 18.9 percent just a year ago, according to the latest installment of the Well-Being Index series from Gallup this week. The poll revealed declines in reported food insecurity in every socioeconomic bracket, though individuals earning less than $24,000 annually are more than twice as likely to be food insecure than those earning $24,000 to $47,999, Gallup found.

But antihunger advocates aren’t popping any corks. For one reason, says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Gallup asked just one question: “Were there times in the last 12 months that you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” That pales in comparison to a more extensive food insecurity questionnaire issued annually by the United States Department of Agriculture, which found an even lower rate of food insecurity than Gallup did in its latest report, from 2013, at 14.3 percent. But the numbers didn’t indicate much change from 2012 to 2013.

Advocates say whatever the numbers, the reality on the ground is undeniably troubling.

“In New York City, we’re not seeing a real reduction of people going to food pantries and soup kitchens,” Berg says. “Even if [the poll reveals] a slight reduction, it’s still far higher than before the recession. It’s still far higher than any other industrialized western democracy.”

Take Canada or Australia, for instance. In 2013, a report by the Conference Board of Canada found that two million Canadians—roughly 8 percent of the population—reported being food insecure. That’s notable, considering Canada doesn’t even have national nutrition assistance programs, like the political football that SNAP funding became in recent years—Canada just gives people money. The number of Aussies seeking food assistance is also consistently below 10 percent, even though the country has seen a spike in the number of people seeking help from food pantries.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Congress slashes nutrition assistance programs that help food-insecure families while opposing wage increases and other benefits that get at the root cause of hunger: poverty. While Berg agrees that the high rate of food insecurity among America’s poorest families is troubling, the statistic from the Gallup report that affected him most is that 6.6 percent of Americans earning between $60,000 and $89,999 annually—roughly 1 in 15—reported having trouble affording food in the past year. This number, he says, pulls back the curtain on the toll the rising costs of living in places such as New York and San Francisco is taking on middle-class families, where people will skip a meal before they skip a rent payment.

“Hunger is not a distinct poverty versus middle-class problem—there’s a continuum,” he says.

As for where the trends on hunger in America are heading, Berg says he will wait for the USDA’s next report on food insecurity, which will be the first to survey Americans following the implementation of a combined $14 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the past year. With Republicans—who have traditionally opposed the expansion of these programs and often sought to cut them—taking over control of the U.S. Senate, Berg hopes party leadership will hold to its promises this week to work with Democrats and lead more from the middle.

“Should Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell read this, I would welcome them to come to NYC to meet with real poor people,” Berg says. “I’ll even come down to Washington, D.C.”

“Bankers play a huge role in economic policy. Gun owners play a huge role in the development of gun policy,” he adds. “Hungry and poor people play virtually no role in the development of hunger and poverty policy.”