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Commentary: Hunger in the World’s Most-Productive Food System

The Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security is pleased to have following editorial by Mary Hendrickson and Bill McKelvey featured in the Kansas City Star. Their commentary appears in conjunction with a November 9, 2017 American Public Square discussion titled Bad Choices. No Choices. Food Insecurityheld on the University of Missouri Kansas City campus. Tickets are sold out but the event can be viewed live on the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City’s Facebook page starting at 6pm.


Hunger in the World’s Most-Productive Food System

By Mary Hendrickson and Bill McKelvey, Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, University of Missouri

In Yolo County, Calif., almost half of the people who pick the fruits and vegetables that you eat ran out of food sometime last year.

One-fifth of the people who cook and serve your food when you dine away from home are food-insecure. Because they can’t afford enough food, they skip meals or do without so their children can eat. Some must decide between buying food and buying medicine.

Two-fifths of American farmers who list farming as their primary occupation netted less than $1,000 in farm income during 2015.

These farm and food workers make the U.S. food system incredibly productive and efficient. We in this country have access to some of the cheapest, most abundant food in the world. On average, Americans spend only 9.8 percent of their disposable income on food.

However, cheap food has a cost, and those who plant, harvest, process, pack, ship, stock, sell, prepare and serve our food bear the expense. Compared with workers in other industries, the food chain pays the lowest median wage to frontline workers — just $16,000 per year or $10 per hour.

Even with cheap food, it’s still unaffordable for the one-fifth of U.S. households who make less than $24,000 per year. They spend more than 30 percent of their income on food. Given other costs for housing, transportation and necessities, it’s easy to see why people struggle. In 2016, 13 percent of food chain workers relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — a food program now under attack in Washington, D.C.

A system that so cheapens a basic requirement for life should feed the people who produce and process our food, and it should make food accessible to everyone. If it doesn’t, then it’s broken. Fixing it requires a holistic, systems approach.

First, we must learn about who works to feed us and appreciate their contributions. System-wide change starts with better knowledge.

Second, we must find ways to improve conditions for farmers and food chain workers. Farmers need economic stability. Workers in processing plants and restaurants need full-time employment, paid time off, ongoing job training and wages north of $15 per hour.

Third, let’s learn from innovative programs such as “Double-Up Food Bucks,” which improves farm incomes and helps families afford nutritious food. Through Double-Up Food Bucks, SNAP recipients who shop at participating Kansas and Missouri markets can double the purchasing power of their benefits if they buy food grown by local farmers. The program is financed both by local funders and the USDA’s nutrition incentive program, a policy implemented under the last farm bill.

Finally, we need policies that take a systems approach to food and farming. The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition is an example. It’s a broad coalition of groups and people involved in the food system. Among its achievements are changes to regional zoning laws, increased water access for urban farmers, advancing policies and practices supporting institutional purchasing of local food, and advocating for a robust Farm Bill that supports a healthy local food system.

Engaging such a variety of stakeholders can make change happen.

Our U.S. food system produces more than 3,500 calories every day for every man, woman and child. No one should be hungry. Considering that some are, it’s time for change.

A New Direction in Food Banking

A recent article on NPR’s The Salt blog highlights the work of Foodlink, a regional food bank in Rochester, NY, and their efforts to both alleviate poverty and provide healthier foods. Given investments the food bank made in food processing, in July 2014 they began purchasing apples from local farmers and then selling them washed, sliced, and packaged to local schools. The initiative was a hit with students and has allowed them to add staff and use the extra revenue for their after-school and summer meal programs.

Foodlink also provides fresh produce in the community through it’s Curbside Market, a traveling produce market that sells fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. Coming in 2018 is a Community Kitchen Institute to help individuals with barriers to employment prepare for jobs in the food industry.

All of this points to a growing trend among food banks and other hunger relief organizations – a shift from solely focusing on food distribution to improving health and livelihoods.

‘Food Policy is Health Policy’ Summit

How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on American’s well-being than any other human activity. With that in mind, MU’s Center for Health Policy and Missouri Council for Activity and Nutrition are teaming up to host the 15th Annual Missouri Healthy Policy Summit: Setting the Table for Success. Set for October 26-27 in Columbia, MO, the summit will feature nationally acclaimed experts Margo Wootan, Ricardo Salvador, and Alison Kodjak. A host of additional speakers and panelists will discuss the health implications of the Farm Bill, food consumption and health trends in Missouri, community and workplace initiatives, and a variety of other topics.

The early registration price of $100 runs through September 28, 2018. Students can register for free. Continuing education credits are available. Visit the conference website for more details.

Garden Smarter with The Garden Starter

A new Grow Well Missouri publication, The Garden Starter, covers the basics of gardening from seed to table. With tips on building, tending, and making the most of your garden, this booklet will help new gardeners feel more comfortable as they get started and give returning gardeners something new to think about. The Garden Starter also includes information on composting, raised bed gardening, and container gardening. As an added bonus, a removable Planting Calendar Centerfold is perfect for hanging in the kitchen, shed, or wherever garden planning is done. Download your free copy here.

Food Banks Becoming a Force for Change

Work of the Community Food Centres Canada is pointing the way for food banks and pantries interested doing more to improve health, build community, and address the root causes of hunger. A new publication, Beyond the Emergency: How to evolve your food bank into a force for changeshares advice, practical tips, and case studies to support groups wishing to create more impact. The chapters are framed by the Good Food Principles – an approach rooted in enhancing health, dignity, and equity in the charitable food system.

Emergency Food, Gardening, and Nutrition Education

A new publication by the Michigan Fitness Foundation titled Emergency Food, Gardening, and Nutrition Education: A Survey of Michigan Food Pantries highlights new findings from a statewide survey of emergency food providers. The report explores the opportunities and barriers faced by emergency food providers related to providing more fresh fruits and vegetables. It also gauges the willingness of providers to implement of specific changes to increase the availability and consumption of fresh produce. In total, the responses of 260 Michigan food pantries are included in the report.

Taking Stock of Missouri Food Pantries

Taking Stock, a series of regional reports published by Grow Well Missouri and the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, provides analysis and discussion to better understand the ways in which the management and operations of food pantries can be enhanced. Based on a survey of 204 food pantry directors, the reports highlight some of the unique needs of food pantries in the areas of planning, communications, facilities, operations, and others. The reports also shed light on areas where food pantries excel.

Visit the Taking Stock webpage to find reports from the Harvesters-Community Food Network region (Kansas City metro), the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri region, the Southeast Missouri Food Bank region, and the Ozarks Food Harvest region (Southwest Missouri).

Grow Well Missouri 2017

Grow Well Missouri logo

Grow Well Missouri with start its fifth year in 2017 and plans to expand in to four to six new communities. The primary focus of the program is to establish food gardening programs that reach out to food pantry customers, helping them grow more of their own food and reap the many benefits of gardening. The program has a proven track record of success in the communities involved to date.

To learn more, visit the Grow Well Missouri webpage. The application process for new groups has closed. However, please contact Bill McKelvey at McKelveyWA [at] missouri [dot] edu to learn about becoming involved.

Grow Well Missouri is a program of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at the University of Missouri. Funding is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Exploring Long-Term Food Pantry Use

Newly published research in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition highlights the struggles of long-term food pantry users. With data from three rounds of food pantry client interviews conducted in 2005, 2010, and 2013, Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security affiliates Michelle Kaiser and Anne Cafer found striking levels of food insecurity among long term food pantry users despite their participation in SNAP and other forms of federal support. The research demonstrates the unique and precarious position of those utilizing emergency food system services over a long period of time and the struggle they face to meet their everyday food needs. Visit the full article Exploring Long-term Food Pantry Use: Differences Between Persistent and Prolonged Typologies of Use for more information.

Missouri Hunger Atlas Documents Growing Hunger Problem

Hunger in Missouri continues to be a cause for concern. According to the newly updated Missouri Hunger Atlas, 7.9 percent of Missouri households struggle with hunger. An additional 8.9 percent of households report reducing the quality, variety, or desirability of their diets due to insufficient resources. In total, approximately 980,000 Missourians experience food insecurity at some point in the year.

Now in its 4th edition, the Missouri Hunger Atlas, published by the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at MU, assesses the extent of food insecurity in the Missouri. It also gauges how well public programs are doing to address the need. Importantly, the Atlas presents a range of indicators related to food insecurity for each county in Missouri, including the city of St. Louis.

The entire Atlas can be downloaded for free on the Missouri Hunger Atlas 2016 webpage.