Nov 27 9:00 PM

Hunger in America: By the numbers

A man holds up a coupon for a free turkey at a Brooklyn, N.Y. food pantry.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Food insecurity” is not knowing where your next meal is coming from, and one in seven American households experienced it at some point last year. At the same time, we're suffering an obesity epidemic and throw away an enormous percentage of the food we produce. What’s going on?

The food that ends up on our plates is tied to everything from the weather to government subsidies, trucking networks to TV ads, health fads to poverty. At America Tonight, we’ve parsed some of the numbers to see where the disconnects truly lie. How can a child go hungry in the wealthiest and (almost) fattest nation on earth?  

There is enough food in the world for everyone to have 2,800 calories a day

The world produces enough to feed everyone amply, according to the Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations. Crop production worldwide has tripled over the last 50 years, bringing the average daily per capita food availability from 2,200 calories to 2,800 calories.

Worldwide, 870 million people suffer chronic undernutrition

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Association also reports that there are 870 million chronically undernourished people – at least 200 million of them children. 

More than 1 in 7 American households are 'food insecure'

According to a report from the Department of Agriculture, 14.5 percent of American households had difficulty sometime last year providing enough food. More than one in 20 households is considered “very food insecure” by the USDA, meaning they've had to skip a meal or reduce the size of meals because they didn't have enough money.


More than 1 in 3 households headed by single mothers are food insecure

One in five households with children are food insecure, according to the USDA, and that number rises to 35 percent when looking at households headed by a single woman. The rate of food insecurity is significantly lower, but still higher than average – 24 percent – among households with children headed by a single father.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Among people who are food insecure, it's a chronic problem for 1 in 4

For most Americans who experience food insecurity, it’s an occasional condition. But among all Americans who experienced food insecurity in 2012, a quarter of them experienced it on almost a monthly basis, the USDA reported. And for Americans who experienced “very low food security” – cutting meal sizes or skipping them altogether – a third experienced this frequently or chronically.

Children in 3.9 million homes are food insecure

At some point last year, 10 percent of households with children were unable to provide those children adequate, nutritious food, according to the USDA report. While children are usually fed first when a household struggles to provide food, both adults and children had to eat less or skip meals at some point in 463,000 households last year, according to the USDA report


1 in 7 Americans receive SNAP benefits

According to USDA numbers, an average of 47.6 million Americans received SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps) each month in 2013, the highest it’s ever been. The number of SNAP recipients increased by almost 50 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2005, and by 70 percent between fiscal years 2007 and 2011. This is mostly because of the weak economy, but also partly due to temporarily increased benefits and higher food prices, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional Budget Office

The average SNAP benefit is $1.48 per meal

The average person on the SNAP program received $133 a month in 2013, reports the USDA. Divided by three meals a day for 30 days, that translates to $1.48 per meal. The average SNAP household uses three-fourths of its benefit by the middle of the month, the USDA reports, and has used up 90 percent of it after three weeks.

There are 70,000 food pantries in America

Since the first one was founded in 1967, food pantries have proliferated across the U.S. at a staggering rate. Mark Winne, a food policy expert at the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, told America Tonight that he estimates that there are currently 70,000 food banks in the country. The food bank network Feeding America had 33,500 member banks in 2010, a 13 percent increase over 2006.

And food banks don’t just function as a final safety net in times of emergency. Many families rely on them. According to a Feeding America survey, more than half of people being served by a food bank have come in at least six months in the past year. More than half of elderly clients used it every month.

A food bank warehouse in Orlando, Fla.
John Raoux/AP

A meal of processed food is a third of the cost of a healthy meal

A shopping basket of healthy food costs three times as much than a shopping basket of macaroni and cheese, soda and other processed food, Robert Lawrence, the founder of the Center for a Livable Future, told America Tonight. This is partly because fresh fruit and vegetables are more expensive to deliver to your plate. They have to be refrigerated and handled with care at every step. But it's also because of food subsidies.

Since 1995, the U.S. has spent $19.2 billion subsidizing junk food ingredients

Taxpayers have paid nearly $20 billion since 1995 subsidizing corn and soy-based ingredients for processed food, like sweeteners, oils and corn starch, according to a report published this year by the Federation of State Public Interest Groups, a consumer advocacy coalition. In comparison, apples – the only fresh fruit to receive a substantial government subsidy – got $689 million.

At current rates, 1 in 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050

Diabetes was the No. 7 cause of death listed on U.S. death certificates in 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the prevalence of the disease is growing fast. The vast majority – 90 to 95 percent –of the 26 million diabetes cases in America are Type 2, which is preventable through weight loss, healthy eating and exercise.

On top of this, a third of adult Americans are pre-diabetic, which means they have elevated blood glucose levels. According to the CDC, a person with diabetes has around twice the risk of dying on any given day as a person around the same age without diabetes.

Obesity rates are higher among lower-income women, but not men

More than a third of American adults are obese, according to the CDC, and two-thirds are overweight. The obesity rate among men of color rises with income, according to the Pew Research Center. And a white man who is well-off is more likely to be obese than a white man who is in poverty.

Obesity rates among white and black women, however, decline steadily in higher income brackets. The trend is less clear for Mexican-American women, but their obesity rates also plummet at higher-income levels.

Pew Research Center

40 percent of food produced in the U.S. every year is thrown out

Stores toss 10 percent of the food they receive, according to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Grocery stores operate on the assumption that customers want brimming displays (preferring an apple plucked from a bountiful crate), so they over-buy and overstock. There’s also the waste from unpopular new products, damaged packing, sell-by dates and holiday excess (Black Friday turkeys).

The USDA estimates that households and restaurants waste another 19 percent of the food that reaches the retail level. Portion sizes have ballooned in the last few decades (a pizza slice in 2002 had 70 percent more calories than one in 1982), and the average diner doesn’t clean her plate. In his book “American Wasteland,” Jonathan Bloom estimates that Americans throw away between 15 and 25 percent of the food they buy. With food relatively cheap and readily available, most Americans simply aren’t conscious of the true cost of wasting it.

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