The Guardian • Issue #2065

USA: Hunger and food insecurity

Man next to shopping trolley.

Photo: (CC0)

The United States is a net exporter of food, yet hunger is a worsening phenomenon with many Americans unable to buy basic foods, due to living expenses or long-term unemployment. Hunger affects millions, including the middle class. Medical bills can be so high than even if both adults are working in a household there is insufficient money to buy adequate food.

Out of a population of 330 million, more than 33 million Americans go hungry every day, 23.5 million people live in “food deserts,” and 34 million – 9 million being children—are “food insecure.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, along with increasing unemployment, food insecurity soared. Last year 49 million people turned to food banks and community food programs to put food on their tables. This is the country which boasts that it is the greatest and richest in the world: a shining example of the American capitalist system.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “food insecurity” as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active and healthy life. People are unable to buy food, especially in neighbourhoods suffering from social deprivation and poverty. Many of these people struggle to meet their own basic needs, either temporarily or long time.


Food insecurity is choosing between food, or paying the rent, medical bills, utility bills, clothes, or daily transport to work. It may be due to: short and long-term unemployment; long term poverty or low income; the lack of affordable housing; chronic health conditions; limited healthcare access; unexpected car bills; or medical expenses. Women have the added cost of feminine hygiene products. Those without health insurance have to decide whether to buy food or medicine and healthcare. Giving birth in hospital can be a very expensive, with many people taking out loans to cover the cost.

According to the USDA, in 2015, 19 million people – 6 per cent of the population – and 2.1 million households lived in a food desert. American cities are designed for car ownership, making public transport in poor areas limited and often expensive. Those with a car have ongoing expenses such as fuel and maintenance. Due to socio-economic and racial disparity, 21.2 per cent of African-Americans suffer food insecurity, and 9 per cent live in severe poverty.

The federal poverty line is defined as US$14,580 for an individual, or US$24,860 for a family of three. In 2020 the median earnings of workers, aged 15 and over, was US$41,535. The median household income is US$70,784. The official US poverty rate is 11.4 per cent, with African Americans having the highest poverty rate at 19.5 per cent and Hispanics at 17.0 per cent.

Food insecurity is highest in major cities, 13.2 per cent, and 12.7 per cent in rural areas. Rural counties experience high food insecurity rates twice that of urban areas, with 3 million rural households being food insecure – 15 per cent of rural households – and 7.5 million living below the poverty line. Poverty in rural communities is more common in Southern states due to the lack of employment opportunities.

Poverty and food deprivation create behavioural problems at school and in the community. Food insecurity leads to difficulty in a child’s learning and growth, with signs of malnutrition common. Children who regularly missed breakfast have an average 17.5 per cent below the standardised maths scores.


Neighbourhoods without access to affordable and nutritious food are referred to as “food deserts.” According to a USDA study, areas with higher poverty rates are more likely to be food deserts, regardless if rural or urban. Studies in urban areas have shown that African Americans have access to fewer supermarkets, having to travel a long distance to get to them. Both city and rural areas experience a higher rate of hunger than suburban areas.

The lack of access to healthy food, low family income, no vehicle availability, and poor public transport, leads to a reliance on expensive local stores. These “party stores” and convenience stores will cash welfare cheques at a 10 per cent fee. There are often no banks in a poor neighbourhood and the banks charge high fees on all accounts under US$2000. This means the poor do not have bank accounts into which their welfare payments can be paid. They are forced to eat less nutritious, but easily accessible processed foods, which cause obesity and dietary problems such as diabetes.

In rural areas, a food desert is the lack of access to a grocery store within 15 kilometres. According to Feeding America, rural communities make up 87 per cent of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity. Rural areas possess fewer grocery stores than urban regions.

Many people can only get enough to eat by using charities, public or private. Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks and food programs which helps millions find food and groceries in their communities. There are free food distribution centres, such as soup kitchens, and national food programs, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or Food Stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, called WIC. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) provides monthly packages of healthy food. For the elderly, there is the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). School children can get free or reduced-price meals at school through: the National School Lunch Program; School Breakfast Program; and the Special Milk Program.

There are 1853 billionaires in the US, the richest of whom are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett. The wealthiest 400 families in the US pay an effective average income tax rate of 8.2 per cent, because of tax write offs. The poorer half of US households pay 24.2 per cent in income tax. The average federal tax rate is 32 per cent. Buffett has admitted that while he paid a total tax rate of 17.7 per cent, his employees paid an average tax rate of 32.9 per cent.

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