Horn of Not-so-Plenty
As people plan their holiday meals, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture has issued a sobering reminder that the number of "food insecure" people is rising, and
North Carolina is among the fastest risers.
A study just released by the USDA says that 13.7 percent of households in the state are food insecure, which is defined as not having all the food needed for a healthy, active lifestyle. Of those, 4.4 percent were forced to reduce the food intake of one or more household members and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
Compton Fortuna, director of the Hunger & Health Coalition in Boone, said those numbers are in line with what the hunger-fighting organization has seen locally in the wake of the recession.
"We've seen a dramatic increase (in need), month by month by month," Fortuna said. "It started increasing at the end of 2007 and just continued to rise."
North Carolina's percentages of food-insecure households increased by more than 40 percent over a decade, and are the highest since the food surveys began in 1995. Fortuna said new families are joining the ranks of those who rely on the coalition for assistance with food supply.
"Last month, we fed over 600 families," she said. "We find that as the economy continues to struggle, if people have jobs at all, they have reduced hours and barely enough income to get by. Food is not always the first thing to buy. The easiest thing to reduce is the food budget when you have to pay rent and electricity."
According to the USDA, the typical food-secure household spent 31 percent more on food than the typical food-insecure household of the same size and household composition. Fifty-five percent of all food-insecure households participated in one or more subsidized food- and nutrition-assistance programs during the month prior to the latest survey.
Fortuna said families tended to make sure children were taken care of, but adults in economically challenged families often had to alter their diets or eating habits to compensate. The recession also created a double whammy because public donations for food are declining as need is rising.
"In order to cope with the insecurity, people tend to buy the least expensive foods, which are often the least healthy," Fortuna said. "And younger children eat first, but the adults often have to make choices about what they can eat. I think we've seen people who thought they'd never have to be in the position to ask for help to feed the family, and that's a very hard thing to do."
Public donations help because they increase the variety of food each household receives. Fortuna said while the coalition is able to buy some foods in bulk at a discount, it usually leads to a limited range of choices.
Food boxes are scattered around 41 locations in the High Country where people can drop off non-perishable items to be used in the food pantry. At the pantry, the donations are mixed with purchased items and corporate donations to help create a varied assortment for each box.
"Because we know the need is so great, we can increase the amount of food we give from once a month to twice a month if they have children," Fortuna said. "What's giving us the most trouble is the decline in public donations of food. That requires us to spend money to buy food."
The local food drive will continue into January, a season when weather affects the local job market and the holidays tend to stretch family budgets thin.
"Public food donations are such an important source for food, not just because of the cost, but because of the variety and the nutrition," Fortuna said. "The things from the community make the box what it needs to be."
In 2008, the median U.S. household spent $43.75 per person for food each
week-about 14 percent more than the cost of USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, a low-cost food "market basket" that meets dietary standards, taking into account household size and the age and gender of household members.
The median food-secure household spent 18 percent more than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, while the median food-insecure household spent 10 percent less than the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan.
Nationally, about 20 percent of food-insecure households obtained emergency food from a food pantry at some time during the year, and 2.6 percent ate one or more meals at an emergency kitchen in their community.