The truth about hunger in America

23 million Americans live in food deserts—but food shortage isn’t the problem.

Global hunger is a staggering problem, and it is on the rise. In 2017, 821 million people faced chronic food deprivation, up from 804 million just one year before.

Here in the United States, 1 in 8 people are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to the food they need in order to lead active, healthy lives. And as the population skyrockets (estimates suggest the United States will cross the 400-million person mark in 2058), the number of Americans who grapple with hunger on a daily basis will continue to soar.

Global hunger is a staggering problem, and it is on the rise. In 2017, 821 million people faced chronic food deprivation, up from 804 million just one year before.

Here in the United States, 1 in 8 people are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to the food they need in order to lead active, healthy lives. And as the population skyrockets (estimates suggest the United States will cross the 400-million person mark in 2058), the number of Americans who grapple with hunger on a daily basis will continue to soar.

But experts say that food insecurity is not a result of not having enough nutritious food to go around; it’s a result of people being unable to access that food due to longstanding flaws in our production and distribution models.

“We produce enough food to feed everyone,” said Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger, a non-profit that tackles food insecurity among college students. “Ending hunger is about looking at our existing resources and practices in new ways.”

Hunger is happening
right here in our backyard

Though hunger is often framed as a problem happening somewhere else in the world, more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, generally defined as areas that are more than 1 mile from a grocery store, which can limit their ability to access affordable, nutrient-dense foods.

The health consequences of this are profound. A child who is chronically food deprived, for example, is at greater risk of stunted physical growth. But he or she is also at greater risk for obesity, thanks to a diet comprised largely of cheap, nutrient-poor foods. Hunger sets people up for a lifetime of chronic physical and mental health problems.

Though hunger is often framed as a problem happening somewhere else in the world, more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, generally defined as areas that are more than 1 mile from a grocery store, which can limit their ability to access affordable, nutrient-dense foods.

The health consequences of this are profound. A child who is chronically food deprived, for example, is at greater risk of stunted physical growth. But he or she is also at greater risk for obesity, thanks to a diet comprised largely of cheap, nutrient-poor foods. Hunger sets people up for a lifetime of chronic physical and mental health problems.

“We spend about $1 billion per day in medical costs and lost productivity due to preventable health problems, like heart disease, and people who live in food deserts are more likely to have those diseases,” said Olympia Auset, founder of SÜPRMARKT, a low-cost, organic pop-up grocer in Southern California.

“Everyone is paying for it,” she continued. “And people are dying sooner than they should.”

Hunger sets people up for a lifetime of chronic physical and mental health problems.

Check your facts on hunger in America

How logistical problems lead to food waste
that could feed billions

“Over a third of the food that is produced globally is either lost or wasted,” said Jennifer van de Ligt, associate director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute and director of Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota.

Broadly, food that is “lost” refers to food that disappears somewhere between the producer and the market, van de Ligt explained. There are many ways that can happen. A pest infestation might destroy a crop, or there could be problems with food storage that mean that crop spoils and does not end up getting sold, she said. A fuel shortage could make it impossible for refrigerated trucks to deliver a perishable food in time.

"Over a third of the food that is produced globally is either lost or wasted."

Jennifer van de Ligt

“Over a third of the food that is produced globally is either lost or wasted,” said Jennifer van de Ligt, associate director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute and director of Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota.

Broadly, food that is “lost” refers to food that disappears somewhere between the producer and the market, van de Ligt explained. There are many ways that can happen. A pest infestation might destroy a crop, or there could be problems with food storage that mean that crop spoils and does not end up getting sold, she said. A fuel shortage could make it impossible for refrigerated trucks to deliver a perishable food in time.

Or, a supplier could use the wrong type of transportation, because that is all that’s available at the time, and a product gets crushed en route to its destination—an example of how food loss and food waste are intertwined.

Food waste, van de Ligt explained, refers to food that is perfectly safe and nutritious, yet is discarded for some reason—meaning it doesn’t end up feeding people when it absolutely could. A common example of that here in the United States are “ugly” fruits or vegetables that are healthy and taste good, but that never make it into grocery stores because they don’t fit with grocers’ and consumers’ visions of what a particular food should look like.

How food gets lost or wasted

  • Pest infestation

  • Problems with storage

  • Improper transportation

  • Discarded for appearance

Food waste, van de Ligt explained, refers to food that is perfectly safe and nutritious, yet is discarded for some reason—meaning it doesn’t end up feeding people when it absolutely could. A common example of that here in the United States are “ugly” fruits or vegetables that are healthy and taste good, but that never make it into grocery stores because they don’t fit with grocers’ and consumers’ visions of what a particular food should look like.

Addressing both food loss and food waste would be one essential step to tackling hunger domestically and abroad, van de Ligt argued.

“We have to feed 9.5 billion people globally by 2050. Many people hear that and say, ‘Well, we’ll have to increase the amount of food we produce.’ Well no, actually, we don’t. We’re producing enough food now; we’re just wasting a third of it.”

How food gets lost or wasted

  • Pest infestation

  • Problems with storage

  • Improper transportation

  • Discarded for appearance

Innovation abounds

Managing issues like food waste, food loss, and food insecurity requires a multi-pronged approach, experts say: federal and local policies that make nutrient-dense foods more affordable and that incentivize grocers to move into low-income neighborhoods; education efforts that urges consumers to think differently about things like “ugly” food; and finding ways to mitigate food waste in the foodservice industry, to name just a few.

Large companies can have massive impact in many of these areas. For example, as a farmer-owned cooperative, eradicating hunger is core to Land O’Lakes, Inc’s mission. In addition to donating thousands of pounds of food to food banks each year, the company enacts groundbreaking sustainable efforts to fuel the future. In a particularly innovative example, one cooperative member turns food waste and manure into renewable energy. And its community garden program partners with local high schools to grow fresh produce for communities in food deserts—an immediate solution which also inspires the next generation of farmers.

Individuals can move the needle as well, introducing innovative solutions to the hunger crisis using new technologies and in often overlooked communities.

Like on college campuses. Though universities tend to be thought of as bastions of privilege, the reality is that up to half of all college students in the U.S. struggle with food insecurity. Sumekh, who founded Swipe Out Hunger, was floored by that statistic, and launched her organization with the idea of letting students donate their unused meal plan dollars to peers using basic swipe technology.

“I like to say that we’re the number-one enemy of instant ramen noodles, and not because they taste bad—people love them!—but because no one should be eating them because that’s their only choice,” laughed Sumekh. “No one should be having them as their only meal for three, four days in a row.”

Individuals can introduce innovative solutions to the hunger crisis using new technologies and in often overlooked communities.

Individuals can move the needle as well, introducing innovative solutions to the hunger crisis using new technologies and in often overlooked communities.

Like on college campuses. Though universities tend to be thought of as bastions of privilege, the reality is that up to half of all college students in the U.S. struggle with food insecurity. Sumekh, who founded Swipe Out Hunger, was floored by that statistic, and launched her organization with the idea of letting students donate their unused meal plan dollars to peers using basic swipe technology.

“I like to say that we’re the number-one enemy of instant ramen noodles, and not because they taste bad—people love them!—but because no one should be eating them because that’s their only choice,” laughed Sumekh. “No one should be having them as their only meal for three, four days in a row.”

Other anti-hunger innovators, like Auset of SÜPRMARKT, are focused on the challenge of food deserts. SÜPRMARKT expands access to low-cost organic produce in South Los Angeles—where there are only 60 grocery stores serving 1.3 million people—through weekly pop-up grocery stands. The idea is simple: bring food to places where access is lacking.But Auset also keeps costs low by taking a stab at food waste, buying and selling ugly produce that traditional retailers won’t touch.

The lesson? Individuals can help to break down the traditional barriers that have put nutritious foods out of reach of too many Americans, and consumers can help affect change, too. Simply buying the imperfect-looking fruits and vegetables in your local grocery store or farmer’s market is a small, but important way to push back against food waste, van de Ligt said. As is buying the “lonely” individual bananas that have been broken off from the bunch and are likely to otherwise be tossed out.

"Hunger and food insecurity are problems that definitely can be solved, and could have been solved already,” Auset said. “The question is, do we care enough to do it?"