The staggering hunger divide

Disparities in food insecurity rates in the U.S. are stark, and uneven across racial groups, according to a new report from USDA.

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Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix. I’m writing today’s edition from the University of Florida, where I’m serving as the spring science journalist in residence. It’s been a great week meeting with so many faculty and students! 

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Food insecurity hits some households harder than others

Food insecurity rates are incredibly unequal across racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to a new in-depth study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The big picture: You’ve no doubt seen headlines over the years about this country’s persistent problems with food insecurity, which is generally defined as a household having limited or uncertain access to enough food. Every year, the USDA releases food insecurity estimates to track this problem over time. The reports routinely show stark disparities between food insecurity rates for white households and Black and Hispanic households. However, these annual reports lack the data to estimate the food insecurity rates specific to certain racial and ethnic groups, such as American Indian and Alaska Native, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or more precisely within groups, such as parsing out different trends within Hispanic or Asian origin subgroups.

What the ERS report found: Researchers found that the food insecurity rate was highest in households with a reference person who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native. Food insecurity among these households surpassed 23 percent, which is more than twice the rate for all U.S. households during that time frame.

Nearly half of food-insecure American Indian or Alaska Native households reported experiencing very low food security – a rate that is nearly three times higher than U.S. households generally. (Very low food security is a more serious condition USDA defines as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”)

Researchers also found that food insecurity varied a whole lot by country of origin. Among Hispanic origin subgroups, for example, the rates varied from more than 11 percent in Cuban households to 21 percent in Dominican households. Food insecurity among Asian origin subgroups ranged from under 2 percent in Japanese households to more than 11 percent in other Asian households.

Asian households overall experienced the lowest food insecurity among the racial and ethnic groups studied, at just over 5 percent. The fact that some Asian subgroups reflected more than double this rate is especially notable. 

Is it all about income? The report found that low household income is related to a higher prevalence of food insecurity for all race and ethnic groups. Still, the prevalence of food insecurity for households below the federal poverty line is actually pretty variable – ranging from 18 percent to nearly 48 percent across different race and ethnic groups.

“Even focusing within specific subgroups, such as households with incomes below the federal poverty line, differences in the prevalence of food insecurity across race and ethnicity are evident and meaningful,” the researchers write. “Such findings show that it is important to understand variation in food insecurity within and across race and ethnic groups.”

Limitations: The study combined six years of data – 2016 to 2021 – to incorporate a large enough sample size to provide estimates across all nine racial and ethnic groups that were analyzed. This decreases the “study’s ability to examine broader economic trends or policies that occur during the study period that may affect prevalence over time,” the researchers note. These data don’t capture the fact that food insecurity rates are substantially higher now than they were in 2021. 

Why these findings matter: Lacking data to measure the food insecurity rates for several racial and ethnic groups and subgroups means that we don’t have a full understanding of the deep disparities among these groups, nor the trends over time, and whether any recent policy interventions are moving the needle.

“Understanding the distribution of food insecurity across race and ethnicity is helpful for understanding which racial and ethnic groups are associated with an increased risk of food insecurity,” the researchers write. “Some racial subgroups comprise a smaller proportion of the sample population but have higher prevalence rates of food insecurity.”

The report adds: “As the statistics in this report show, important differences exist in the prevalence of food insecurity for the different subgroups, which are obscured when the subgroups are categorized together.”

The pandemic factor: A lot of people still don’t realize that during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, food insecurity rates at the macro level did not go up but held steady in the U.S. because of the large amount of federal aid that the government doled out during that time. Congress beefed up Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, stood up stimulus payments, enacted Child Tax Credit payments for households with children and rolled out universal free school meals, among other policies aimed at stemming the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

This was heralded as a policy success and will likely be studied by academics and policy wonks for a long time. But the macro story of avoiding a spike in overall food insecurity rates always masked the fact that deep disparities persisted, and in some cases worsened, during that time.

On the rise: Now that virtually all of the stepped-up federal aid has expired and Washington has moved on from a brief era of more generous safety net spending – particularly as inflation has spiraled – food insecurity rates are now going up across the board


What I’m reading

José Andrés is channeling his grief and influence to change Israel policy (Wall Street Journal). “A week ago, celebrity chef José Andrés was juggling late-night TV appearances to promote a new cookbook and TV show while overseeing final preparations for a shipment of food aid in Gaza using a new sea route pioneered by his organization, World Central Kitchen. Now, after seven of his workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike as they delivered supplies for hungry Palestinians, he has launched a vocal public campaign decrying Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas and marshaling his political influence to force change,” writes Drew Hinshaw, Stephen Kalin, and Kristina Peterson. “On Tuesday, Andrés spoke with President Biden, who considers him a friend, in a private phone conversation before telling Reuters that the president’s policy of arming Israel while trying to get more aid into Gaza is ‘very complicated to understand.’ Andrés demanded Israel ‘stop this indiscriminate killing’ in a tweet to his one million followers. In an op-ed published Wednesday in the New York Times and in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, he wrote that the war can’t be won ‘by starving an entire population.’”

As obesity rises, Big Food and dietitians push ‘anti-diet’ advice (Washington Post). “One company in particular, General Mills, maker of Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms cereals, has launched a multipronged campaign that capitalizes on the teachings of the anti-diet movement, an investigation by The Washington Post and The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom that covers global public health, has found,” report Sasha Chavkin, Caitlin Gilbert, Anjali Tsui and Anahad O’Connor. “General Mills has toured the country touting anti-diet research it claims proves the harms of ‘food shaming.’ It has showered giveaways on registered dietitians who promote its cereals online with the hashtag #DerailTheShame, and sponsored influencers who promote its sugary snacks. … General Mills complies with federal regulations and ‘works closely with a variety of scientific, health, nutrition and other credentialed experts to ensure we provide accurate, evidence-based information,’ said spokesperson Andrea Williamson.”

Australian lab-grown meat cultured from quail cells hits the market in Singapore (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). “A parfait made from Japanese quail cells has become the first Australian lab-grown meat to hit the world market,” report Fiona Broom and Angus Verley. “Singapore’s food regulator approved Vow’s quail foie gras for sale in March, making it only the second cell-cultured meat product to become available in the island city-state. Singapore was the first country in the world to approve cultured meat in December 2020, with the United States following last year.”

House Oversight Committee to hold hearing with FDA commissioner (House Oversight). “The hearing will examine the Oversight Committee’s ongoing investigations into the Food and Drug Administration’s response to several issues, including the infant formula crisis and food safety, drug shortages, facility inspections, hemp regulation, regulation of tobacco and nicotine products, and over-the-counter decongestants.” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf will testify at the meeting on April 11 at 1 p.m. (More on this next week!)

So Much Produce Comes in Plastic. Is There a Better Way? (New York Times). “What began with cellophane in the 1930s picked up speed with the rise of plastic clamshells in the 1980s and bagged salads in the 1990s. Online grocery shopping turbocharged it. But now the race is on for what people who grow and sell fruits and vegetables are calling a moon shot: breaking plastic’s stranglehold on produce,” writes Kim Severson. “Reducing the use of plastic is an obvious way to push back against a changing climate. … Yet plastic has so far been the most effective tool to fight another environmental threat: food waste.”

Meat labeling bill amended to restrict SNAP purchases of egg substitutes (Iowa Capital Dispatch). “The Iowa House passed a bill Wednesday that would prohibit imitation meat products from being misleadingly labeled as meat – with an amendment prohibiting people from purchasing egg substitutes through food assistance programs,” writes Robin Opsahl. The bill “establishes fines for businesses that create non-meat products and label them with terms used for butchered meat, if the labels do not also include terms like ‘fake’ or ‘vegetarian’ specifying that they are not traditional meat products.”

The GOP is freaking out about an industry that doesn’t even exist yet (Washington Post). “Republican politicians in Alabama, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida are considering legislation that would ban the sale, distribution or import of any ‘cell-cultured food product’ intended for human consumption,” writes Catherine Rampell. “Depending on the state, penalties could include everything from a $1 million fine to prison time.”


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