Food Insecurity: How Does Hunger Affect Our Communities?

By Amanda Castro-Crist

More than 13 million children in the United States lack reliable access to adequate amounts of affordable and nutritious food. They are part of the population known as “food-insecure.” Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows food insecurity among average U.S. households sat at 12.7 percent in 2015.

At colleges and universities, reports show food insecurity is much higher. Almost half of students surveyed stating they dealt with food insecurity in the past month. The statistics show rates are even higher among students of color and first-generation college students.

A Campus and Community Problem

“We had 1,463 people indicate that they were part-time or full-time students at the time of receiving assistance,” said Danielle Robertson, communications and digital marketing director of Lubbock’s South Plains Food Bank (SPFB).

That number comes from yearly data collected by the national nonprofit organization, Feeding America. Robertson said SPFB assisted a total 57,243 people in 32 counties throughout the South Plains. Of those counties, one in eight people and one in four children suffer from hunger on a regular basis. The rate of food insecurity in Lubbock is 15.5 percent, which is almost two percent higher than the national average.

While a large amount of data exists regarding hunger among children and families, statistics about college and university students can be sparse or nonexistent.

“We do not have access to that information,” said Paul Frazier, associate vice president of the Texas Tech Division of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. “I don’t know that it exists.”

Robertson said part of the problem is that hunger among college and university students is often downplayed. Joking about hungry college students surviving on ramen noodles to pay tuition has created a stigma when considering those who legitimately cannot afford to eat.

“It’s a lot harder for us to think about raising funds or approaching donors about a college pantry than it is for children,” she said. “You can get through on ramen noodles, but it’s not sustainable. It’s not healthy at all.”

The $160 Billion Problem

The price of hunger comes in the form of health, societal and economic costs. Information from the American Psychological Association shows students who suffer from hunger do worse compared to their peers when it comes to academic and developmental milestones, have a higher instance of behavioral and mental issues and have poorer health.

All of this translates to a $160 billion bill. According to the 2016 Hunger Report, that is the estimated additional amount of national health expenditures the U.S. incurred in 2014 because of food insecurity and hunger.

That is more than the total state expenditures for Texas public schools in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Twenty-four percent of federal spending is reactive spending to treat health issues like diabetes, depression and obesity, after they arise from poor nutrition. Only 3 percent is proactive spending on prevention and programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which gives low-income families a tool to access healthy, nutritious food.

Health and the Issue of Equity

Robert Forbis, assistant professor of political science | Source: Texas Tech University

The relationship between health and hunger is a complex cycle that includes poverty and points to inequity of resources as one of the underlying causes.

In March, Texas Tech hosted a political science panel discussion, “Confronting Food Insecurity,” which focused on hunger as a health issue. Robert Forbis, a political science assistant professor, spoke about sustainability in communities, which he said has a lot to do with food insecurity.

Forbis describes sustainability as a three-point effort – initiatives in environmental protection, economic development and equity in regards to social justice.

“The closer you come to combining the three in the center, you get closer to being a resilient community,” Forbis said. “You get closer to the idea of raising standards of living across the board for the entire population.”

Equity is the most ignored of the three, Forbis said. But Nathaniel Wright, a political science assistant professor who researches nonprofit management and their roles in creating sustainable neighborhoods, said it’s what nonprofits focus on when working towards achieving sustainability. Part of Wright’s research has focused on Community Action Agencies (CAA), which were established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to help people in poverty help themselves by becoming self-sufficient.

CAAs support more than 34.5 million Americans and cover about 96 percent of U.S. counties, Wright said.

“These are the perfect organizations to get a sense of, what are you doing to address these issues,” Wright said. “What strategies are you actually using and what actually matters to create stable communities?”

Nathaniel Wright, assistant professor of political science | Source: Texas Tech University

In surveying executive directors of these agencies, Wright found they defined sustainability in different ways, from job creation to less reliance on federal resources. There was one common theme, he said.

“Many of these executive directors see food as being really important to creating sustainable neighborhoods,” Wright said. “Not only is it the issue of equity, housing and jobs, food is also of serious concern to these executive directors who are leading these nonprofits.”

Though food insecurity is not a linear problem, the panelists said there are several factors that make it worse – a lack of education, cooperation, awareness and access to social services, quality health care and even food retailers.

“Nonprofits believe before we can address issues of food insecurity, we have to address issues of inequity. In Lubbock, for example, there’s only one supermarket on the east end,” Wright said. “In my neighborhood, I have five options and 20 restaurants.”

Income in Lubbock varies greatly, even between adjacent neighborhoods. Average median household income around campus ranges from below $20,000 to more than $140,000. / www.city-data.com

 

 

“The reason there is only one grocery store in east Lubbock is because grocery stores have to make money, and they will go where they can they make the most money,” Fitzgerald said. “You can make more on higher markup products and the people who can afford higher markup products are richer people.”

As income inequality increases, Fitzgerald said one of the ripple effects will be that lower income communities will continue to be under-served compared to affluent communities. Basic kinds of business they used to be able to access are now gone and will continue to disappear.

“It’s all linked – there’s no one answer,” Fitzgerald said. “Money’s a big deal. Distribution of income really matters.”

 

Hunger: Helping Students Help Themselves

Less data may exist about the issues of inequity and food insecurity on campus, but that hasn’t stopped work on solutions to help those in need.

Last semester, the Texas Tech Wreck Hunger Graduate & International Food Pantry was created to serve students within those two demographics. This semester, members of the Student Government Organization have teamed up with other campus entities and SPFB to expand on that work and open a pantry for all students.

“There are more students on campus who are at risk for being malnourished,” said Bryce White, a graduate agricultural communications student who served during spring 2017 as SGA vice president for graduate affairs. “We decided to make a university-wide food pantry that could serve all students, from undergraduates to doctoral candidates, no matter where they’re from or how old they are.”

The pantry is scheduled to open in in Doak Hall during fall 2017. Specifics are still being worked out, but Robertson said the efforts will have numerous benefits on students well beyond their time at Texas Tech.

“If you’re fed, you’re focused. If you’re focused, you’re learning,” she said. “When you’re learning, you’re set up for success.”

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