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

Hunger in the World’s Most-Productive Food System

By Mary Hendrickson and Bill McKelvey, Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, University of Missouri
Appeared in the Kansas City Star on November 9, 2017

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.