When people discuss solutions to “world hunger,” they tend to think in terms of far-flung third-world locales afflicted by long years of drought. Yet, according to a new interactive map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hundreds of “food deserts” stretch across America, from the East Coast to West Coast. These “deserts” comprise 10 percent of the country. Moreover, 1 in 7 people in the U.S. now subsist on food stamps, and, in 2009, nearly 15 percent of U.S. households were found to have low or very low “food security,” meaning that, on a regular basis, nearly 50 million Americans ran short on food. Even for many members of the traditional middle class, America is no longer the Land of Plenty.
A number of high-profile innovators have been attempting to address the Food Desert problem. Take Jamie Oliver, for example, who launched the Food Revolution after being awarded the 2010 TED Prize as a way of ending childhood obesity and bringing attention to communities that did not have access to fresh food and produce.
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, has focused on how to change the ways we grow, sell and prepare food. The government has also stepped in with a number of initiatives to put an end to food deserts and related problems, such as childhood obesity. In 2007, the government launched a massive $400 million Healthy Food Financing initiative supported by Michelle Obama, with a goal of wiping out food deserts by 2017.
The economic downturn, though, has taken much of the impact of these measures away, with more Americans than ever before now resorting to food pantries and even soup kitchens for their food needs. Even when things appear to have changed for the better, they haven’t — a mirage in the food desert. As The Economist pointed out this summer, recent numbers showing a substantial decline in the number of Americans living in “food deserts” — from 23.5 million in 2009 to 13.5 million in May — was actually due to a little sleight-of-hand (i.e. re-defining the word “food desert” for rural areas). In places like Oregon and Mississippi, the number of Americans using food stamps is as high as 1 in 5.
Clearly, throwing more money at the problem and offering tax incentives to supermarket chains to set up shop in the desert may not be the best solution. The solution might only come from changing the system itself. Social innovators behind the collaborative consumption movement, for example, advocate that any economic system be more inclusive of bartering, sharing and swapping. Poor or middle-class Americans who can’t afford nutritious food would be able to swap economic goods or other items of value (e.g. a parking space on a busy urban street) for that food. This idea of collaborative consumption on a micro-scale across thousands of communities is starting to catch on, moving from a quirky concept for community organizers to something that can be embraced by leading innovators such as IDEO.
In an era of celebrity chefs, wall-to-wall cable TV cooking shows and 2,400-page tomes on the finer points of molecular gastronomy, how is it possible that America is unable to care and feed for its citizens? If Alexis de Tocqueville were to visit America today, he would be astonished at how much things have changed for our society. Writing to his contemporaries in the 1830's, he was amazed at the amount of food Americans consumed: “We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets.” It’s heartening that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a game plan to reduce the number of food deserts across the country. America’s silent food crisis is no longer relegated to blighted urban zones — it is starting to encroach on what we used to refer to as “suburbia” as well.
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