When we talk about fighting hunger, it can be easy for people to misunderstand us because in some ways we’re fighting against an invisible enemy. You can’t see hunger, and that’s a shame because—as everyone knows—you definitely feel it when it’s happening to you.
But hunger can live right next door, and most of the time we won’t even know it. How would we? Given the pace of our lives, it’s easy to overlook things, especially things we literally can’t see or touch. That doesn’t change the fact that people whose paths we cross every day are likely struggling in ways we know nothing about. Or that their kids are going to bed hungry more often than we’d like to recognize.
As difficult as that thought is, the numbers bear it out. Recent figures estimate that one in four children in the United States are food-insecure.1 In effect, that means one out of four American kids right now can’t be sure where their next meal will come from.
Sit with that number for a minute. That’s a dramatic change from where we stood just months ago, before the coronavirus outbreak, when the USDA had that ratio at one in seven. We all know that the economic effects of COVID-19 have cut deeply through our entire society, but unless we’ve experienced them directly, it can be hard to see the real costs.
One of those costs is more and more hungry kids, so it’s especially important now to make sure we understand what we mean when we talk about hunger and food insecurity. There’s no better time than now, when so many are struggling, to bring a little more clarity to this conversation.
First of all, when an organization like Feed the Children works to raise awareness about childhood hunger, we obviously don’t mean just “being a little hungry,” or accidentally skipping a meal once in a while. To be clear, we’re talking about the chronic, persistent reality of kids not getting enough to eat and the effects that has on their lives, their development, their futures.
It helps to look at hunger within the larger context of food insecurity. Properly speaking, “hunger” refers to the experience of not having enough to eat and what that feels like. “Food insecurity” has to do with a person’s ability to access nourishing food being limited or compromised.
It’s a term that’s concerned more with someone’s actual socioeconomic situation—as it’s lived day after day—as they struggle to put food on the table for themselves and their kids. If hunger is something you feel, food insecurity is more like a condition you live with. In some ways, you can think of food insecurity as the house where hunger lives, the soil that it grows from.
It’s also a more inclusive term that addresses a range of issues, beyond simple hunger, that have to do with nutrition. Those of us who are food-secure rarely have to worry about getting enough food, but we also tend to be in a position to make sure we eat right. As before, it’s a question of access; if you can’t consistently get your hands on nutritious food that actually nourishes your family, your household will still be food-insecure, even if your children are (technically) getting enough food, in terms of volume, to keep their stomachs from growling.
So hunger vs. food-insecurity is an important distinction—partly because it helps us put our finger on a disconnect that leads to a misperception: geez, that family doesn’t look hungry to me. In fact, those kids could stand to lose a few pounds. Do they really need help? We hear this kind of thing all the time, but it’s an unfortunate fact that obesity and the kind of malnutrition that stems from food-insecurity often go hand-in-hand.2 Counter-intuitive, maybe, but true.
All of the developmental needs of a growing child—physical, cognitive, psychological—are put into jeopardy when hunger and malnutrition are in play. Those of us who don’t have to worry about it like to think of diet and nutrition as choices we make, but that’s not true for everyone. Again, it’s a question of access. For many, healthy eating choices can be hard to come by.
There’s been a growing awareness lately of the role that food deserts play in food insecurity and malnutrition in children. Concentrated mainly in lower-income urban and remote rural areas, food deserts are areas where few or no healthy food choices exist. For miles, nothing might be available but fast food franchises. This is truly unfortunate for lower-income families who live there because it could actually be cheaper to buy groceries and prepare nutritious meals at home than buying high-fat, nutrient-poor so-called “value meals.” But if the nearest grocery store is well out of reach, or transportation isn’t available, what can be done?
For families who struggle to put food on the table for their kids, food insecurity, nutrition and hunger can be complex issues—far from the simple view we tend to take of them if we’re well and consistently fed. However, by opening our minds and hearts to understand them, we can gain a clearer picture of the challenges that food-insecure families actually face. Doing so will better guide our response as we work to help them on these two related fronts—both getting food into the hands of the hungry kids who most immediately need it, and then working against the conditions that perpetuate food insecurity and poverty for the future.
For developing children—especially now—the stakes couldn’t be higher.
If you are able, please take a moment today to make a donation. Any gift, no matter the amount, can be the difference between hunger and hope for a child.