Quick Take: Food Insecurity Remains High in the U.S. Despite Being ‘Solvable’

A photo taken by Kim W., one of the Witnesses to Hunger, a Drexel program highlighting poverty through the cameras of those who live it. She said, “My short-term goal was to fill up my deep freezer for the winter. In Jauary, my freezer is still empty. I don’t understand how I am denied food stamps because I am ‘over income’ but still can’t put food in my freezer.”

Annual numbers released by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service showed that the percentage of food insecure homes has decreased, but more than one in eight households remain unable to access enough food for an active and healthy life.

The numbers, released Wednesday, showed that the percentage of households struggling with food insecurity fell to 12.7 percent in 2015 from 14 percent in 2014.

However, 42.2 million individuals continue to be without sufficient food. Additionally, 5 percent of U.S. households reported very low food security, a more severe form of food insecurity due to a lack of household resources, down just 0.6 percent from 2014.

Mariana Chilton, PhD, a professor in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, testified in front of a Congressional committee last fall on hunger and urged it for more action.

“Hunger continues to be a widespread — yet solvable — problem in the United States. Each year the food insecurity numbers do not dramatically decrease is another year kids are not getting the nutrition they need for an active and healthy life,” said Chilton. “We need more policies and programs that really address the root cause of hunger and address the lifelong effects it has.”

Food insecurity among households with children did recede “significantly,” according to the report, with the 2014 rate of households with children that are food insecure declining from 9.4 percent to 7.8 percent in 2015. That still means that 13.1 million children live in households that did not have enough food throughout the year.

Research at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities has shown that food insecurity doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s often closely tied to generational stress and trauma that perpetuates cyclical poverty.

Most recently, research with families participating in a federal cash assistance program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF) showed that a large section of mothers with young children have experienced past trauma that could affect their abilities to find work and afford enough food for their children today. Not only did 56 percent of participants report food insecurity, findings included:

  • 85 percent of the parents experienced childhood trauma (including abuse or neglect)
  • 60 percent reported experiencing depression
  • 60 percent have been slapped, hit or punched
  • 65 percent have seen someone seriously wounded by an act of violence
  • 27 percent have seen someone being killed

These rates place the mothers’ exposure to violence and trauma well above the national average. With that in mind, Chilton believes that if safety net programs are really going to address hunger and poverty, they must include services or support for this kind of trauma.

Chilton and her team at the Center are doing that through the Building Wealth and Health Network, a research program for caregivers participating in TANF, which provides trauma-informed peer support groups and financial empowerment classes for families to move beyond the work-limiting barriers of hunger and trauma and adversity. The program also supports an asset-building technique in the form of matched-savings accounts that afford families the ability to build their individual safety nets.

“By acknowledging exposure to trauma and toxic stress, and by building peer support into these programs, we can better prepare families for the workforce and help them break out of poverty,” Chilton said.

Media interested in speaking with Chilton should contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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