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Food Insecurity: A Coordination Problem in the United States

By: Nora Germain

Food insecurity and poverty at large have been widespread and underreported problems in the United States for decades. While the crisis of food insecurity can be explained through a number of different angles and can be attributed to a number of different causes, I’d like to explore the ways in which COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequities and why coordination efforts have not been able to solve them.

I’m not an expert on poverty, inequality, hunger or homelessness, but feel it’s important to draw attention to these crises that America faces today, the pain and suffering that so many millions of people are enduring, and to offer some inspiration and motivation to solve them as a society, both in the United States and beyond. 

According to this comprehensive report by Feeding America, about 35 million people (including 11 million children) were food insecure before the pandemic started, and while this number is the lowest it’s been since 2000, the pandemic has caused the nation as a whole to drift backwards and lose much of the progress it’s made in this area. The report goes on to explain that since 2018, the increase in food insecure people is up 13%, which means over 50 million people are now food insecure, against a total population of about 330 million. 

Childhood food insecurity is even more devastating, with every state reporting at least a rate of 11%, and some states are as high as 31% or more, which is a staggering and grotesque statistic no matter what country you live in. The Association of American Medical Colleges reported in October of 2020 that now, 54 million people face food insecurity, in part resulting from the fallout of the pandemic. Of course, other factors contribute to food insecurity, especially among seniors who may have medical debt and face financial hardships as a result. 

CBS News cited that since COVID-19, food insecurity tripled among families with children, which is a 300% increase. This cruel tragedy calls into question the United States’ response to the pandemic itself, which has by many accounts been likened to a “humanitarian disaster” and is an embarrassment on the world stage. CBS goes on to explain that a resolution was passed to provide families with an EBT card which would help replace school meals, but this only impacts about three million children in total and expires in 2021, so there is much left to do. 

Why is it so hard to coordinate around hunger? We know that food waste is a tremendous problem both environmentally and logistically, but on the other side of that coin, people in America go hungry. This article from the New York Times in August explains the outrage of the United States Senate taking vacation while “Americans starve.” The article is a brief study in the dysfunction of talks in Congress, and describes a basic abdication of responsibility.

On a government level in many places, there seems to be a poverty of ambition and a lack of urgency surrounding many of these crises, and in addition to that, partisanship, a lack of general empathy and a lack of understanding about the severity of these circumstances has led to inaction, slow action, irrelevant debates and arguments about other unrelated pieces of legislation, and of course, an inability to coordinate. 

However, the government’s gridlock, greed, and potential ignorance is only part of the problem of coordination. There is also a problem with the food waste and food insecurity imbalance, and according to U.S. News, hospitals and grocery stores are now starting to monitor their food waste and engage in programs to donate leftovers. This certainly helps in the short term and should continue, but it does not totally solve the problem of food insecurity.

As of 2017, “Close to 58% of working household members reported having plans to seek food assistance on a regular basis as a means to supplement their monthly budgets.” When over half of Americans surveyed report the need for outside food assistance in order to survive, this calls into question the design of the economy at large and the urgency for a universal basic income, stronger benefits, a higher minimum wage, and many other ideas and programs that would alleviate poverty and food insecurity in the long term. 

Sadly, this crisis is not likely to end anytime soon. USA Today reported a two-mile long line at a food bank in Arizona ahead of Thanksgiving, and it’s not the only story like it. A food bank in Cincinnati that used to feed upwards of 125 people per day now feeds more than 350 people per day, per the story. That means that the situation is getting worse, not better. 

It’s also heartbreaking that many Americans feel there is no choice but to go back to work during a pandemic. If the U.S. government provided the type of assistance that other countries have provided to their people, then Americans could stay home, the virus would dissipate, and people wouldn’t starve (or die as frequently from COVID). To those who worry about government spending, there seems to always be money available in America for war, but never enough for feeding hungry children, so this is a question of priorities as well as funds. 

So perhaps one other coordination issue is the problem of ignorance, and the public not demanding better circumstances from the leaders who were elected to advocate for them. In America, many people have been conditioned to believe that poverty exists as a result of their own personal failure, despite working long hours and often making huge sacrifices in terms of things like medications and childcare. That’s not to say that personal failure cannot lead to poverty, or that people do not have any control over their lives, but there are often greater forces at play, as well. 

These economic systems and their relationships to food insecurity can be complex and disturbing, but luckily, there are people and organizations around the world who know this, and who devote themselves to simply feeding others. There is much work to be done in terms of nutrition, the social safety net, policy, and poverty at large, and there are courageous and important fights happening on that front, but making sure that people survive to see a better day might be even more urgent. 

Chef Jose Andres’ organization World Central Kitchen is one of these organizations. They have provided millions of meals to hungry people all over the world during natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This video in particular really shows the brave work that Chef Andres himself does, and I hope it inspires everyone to think of new ways they can work harder for the welfare and well being of others. You don’t have to go wading through flood water in Central America to make a difference. 

Another great organization is God’s Love We Deliver, who with the help of 17,000 volunteers, deliver meals to more than 2 million people per year. Anyone who is interested in supporting the work of these two great charities can donate and help feed hungry people who need help now more than ever before. However, while charities are of vital importance, it’s crucial that America does not give up trying to solve these and other problems in a lasting way. Charity and philanthropy should not and cannot be expected to replace legislation and innovation. 

After researching the scale and complexity of food insecurity in America, I wonder if blockchain technology could help humanity coordinate around this issue more efficiently, and provide maps or real time updates where food is needed most, or provide cryptocurrency incentives to those who donate unused food. Maybe we could get better at connecting people who have a surplus of food with people who urgently need it. Perhaps a system of verification for aid and the impact it has on real people could also be implemented, and could help charities and organizations prove their work is saving lives, which would then inspire others to give more or volunteer. 

We know for sure that food insecurity is not just a result of COVID-19, that it exists as a much bigger problem in many other wealthy countries than is widely known today (3 million people are currently going hungry in Britain for example, according to Forbes), and it’s not going to go away quickly or easily. We need not only the technology, but the morality, the courage and the knowledge to act on this crisis. Nobody should be going hungry in the United States or anywhere else, and we have the power as a society to achieve this goal.