Although it’s not hard for most of us to imagine the implications of poverty in general, the complex issue of food insecurity has its own set of disturbing consequences that must be addressed. That’s according to Dr. Craig Gundersen, who spoke on October 12 to a group of students at the University of Dallas in a presentation entitled “Addressing Food Insecurity in the United States: A Catholic Economist’s Perspective.” Dr. Gundersen is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agriculture Strategy in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and the Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory.
Aside from the fact that he believes Catholics are called to feed the hungry, Gundersen said that there are several reasons for studying food insecurity in the United States. “There are definite negative health benefits associated with food insecurity,” he said. “These represent serious consequences.”
Gundersen added that food insecurity is not completely characterized by income. “Since 10-15% of non-poor households are food insecure, we need to study why this issue transcends income boundaries,” he said. Gundersen argued that because the central goal of the USDA is to alleviate food insecurity, economists must study in detail the causes and outcomes of the problem in order to make sure the USDA is a good steward of its $100 billion budget.
Researchers like Gundersen use a survey called the Core Food Security Module to measure an individual’s level of food insecurity. It consists of eighteen questions such as “I worried whether I would run out of food before I had money to buy more” and “My child was unable to eat for an entire day because I did not have enough money for food.” Affirmative responses to three or more questions on the module result in a determination that a person is food insecure.
Gundersen indicated that although he trusts the survey’s integrity, there could possibly be times when a parent might be particularly concerned with admitting his or her children were hungry. “I’ve heard about parents breaking down while taking the survey because they were devastated that they couldn’t feed their kids,” he said. “And some might even be afraid that Child Protective Services might be called.”
Even in good economic times, there is food insecurity in the U.S. According to Gundersen, economic downturns like the Great Recession greatly increase these levels. In fact, a sharp increase in food insecurity levels from 2007-2008 predated the official start of the recession. “Food insecurity levels did not begin decreasing from their highs until 2014,” Gundersen said. “And they have still not returned to their pre-recession levels.”
Gundersen said that statistical models have shown that there are several determinants of food insecurity when other factors are accounted for. One determinant that is having a non-working teenager in the house. “Teenagers working outside of school can be a double-edged sword,” Gundersen said. “While their incomes may help the family pay expenses, their schoolwork may suffer in the process.” Other determinants that make food insecurity more likely include living in households where there is a single parent or where a parent is incarcerated, and even the season. “Summer is predictably a time of food insecurity because children are not receiving free or reduced price breaksfasts or lunches,” he said.
Gundersen explained that although SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, is a large investment on the part of our country, the program is achieving its stated goal of alleviating food insecurity. “Not all federal programs are successful,” he said. “But this one is.”
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