Food Insecurity and Urban Poverty

A Convenience Store in Guantanam.

by Eric Liesse

December 1st, 2015

    Food insecurity is a socioeconomic phenomenon characterized by households’ limited or uncertain access to food. The USDA distinguishes between households with low food security who experience a decreased quality or desirability of diet, and those with very low food security that experience ‘disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake’.

    There are a number of reasons an economist might be concerned about the issue of food insecurity. There can be empathetic concern from the human rights perspective, the question: ‘how does it come to be that the there is enough food produced for all people, yet the distribution of resources is skewed in such a way that some individuals have little or nothing to eat, and others are responsible for 1.3 billion tons of food waste a year’? Another reason for interest could be purely practical: if calorie and/or nutrient intake impacts individuals’ ability to engage in productive activity or has an effect on indicators such as lifetime income and mortality rates, then surely it is within our interests to ensure that individuals receive the appropriate quality and quantity of food.

    World poverty rates have gone from 43% in 1990 to 21%, 20 years later, in 2010 due to economic growth. Urbanization has been a critical component of this growth and now over half of the world’s people – more people than ever before! – live in cities. The International Monetary Fund has noted that urbanization can reduce poverty levels in two ways: “First, urbanization can come with higher mean income, which reduces poverty even if the distribution of incomes relative to the mean does not change. Second, it might entail improved distribution even if there is little or no economic growth.”

    However, urbanization has also brought with unique phenomena such as food deserts – areas with few or no places to buy fresh food. Unlike their rural counterparts, urban individuals live in apartments and tightly packed informal houses and are therefore without the option to grow food for their own consumption. Thus, urbanites rely on supermarkets, convenience stores, and fast food outlets for food, and must make the best choices – balancing individual preferences such as taste and constraints such as price and proximity – with the options available to them at these outlets.

    What they find is that fresh food is more expensive and harder to come by than fast food and other low-nutrient food. Thus low-income individuals who opt to consume cheap, unhealthy food are merely acting as rational agents and attempts to address food insecurity must address the constraints faced by low-income, including price and proximity to home neighborhood.

    While it is easy enough for most people to imagine hunger in developing countries, it would be fallacious to believe food insecurity is limited to these regions. In 2013, 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in the United States. This is despite the fact that the United States Department of Agricultures’ Food and Nutrition Service has fifteen programs – including The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – to address the inadequate nutrient consumptions of low-income individuals. Thus, one can conclude that there is a large number of individuals who are not poor enough to qualify for the FNS programs but are too poor to have food security.

    It is for these individuals that innovative solutions from private enterprises can be particularly helpful. One such initiative is the nonprofit supermarket, Daily Table in Dorchester, Massachusetts opened by former Trader Joes President Doug Rauch. Goods are priced low: canned vegetables two for $1, a dozen eggs for 99 cents, potatoes are 49 cents a pound. Daily Table is able to have such low prices because its food is – surplus or unsold goods – donated by food wholesalers and markets. Some individuals may complain that this food that was not good enough for the rich is now being given to the poor. However, it is important to note that the food is equally healthy and there is nothing actually wrong with the produce.

    The solutions to the world’s biggest socioeconomic issues will, of course, not be simple or easy. But it is the kind of innovative thinking displayed by Mr. Rauch that will bring us a long way. Rauch’s solution does not presume that all the poor must do in order to better their lives is simply try hard enough. He realizes that low-income individuals are faced will real obstacles, and that it is through addressing these problems that we can come closer to solving food insecurity round the world.

References

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (2014). ‘Definitions of Food Security’. Retrieved August 2015 from http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/definitions-of-food-security.aspx.
Global Food Losses and Food Waste – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011 Retrieved August 2015 from http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e.pdf.
The Economist (2013). ‘The Economist explains: How did the global poverty rate halve in 20 years?’ Retrieved August 2015 from http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/06/economist-explains-0.
Ravallion, Martin (2007). ‘Urban Poverty’. Finance & Development, September 2007, Volume 44, Number 3. Retrieved August 2015 http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2007/09/ravalli.htm.
Feeding America (2013). ‘Hunger and Poverty Fact Sheet’. Retrieved August 2015 from http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/hunger-and-poverty/hunger-and-poverty-fact-sheet.html.
Nickisch, Curt (2015). ‘Trader Joe’s Ex-President Opens Store With Aging Food And Cheap Meals’. NPR. Retrieved August 2015 from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/06/04/411777947/trader-joes-ex-president-opens-store-with-aging-food-and-cheap-meals.