An estimated 14.0 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2014, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. In Texas, the number is higher:
- The household food insecurity rate for Texas is 18.4%, significantly higher than the national average. Source: Texas Hunger Initiative
- Over 27% of children under 18 in Dallas live in households that have experienced food insecurity in the past year. Source: Feeding America
- Dallas County ranks 5.9 out of 10 on the Food Environment Index (FEI). The FEI combines two data points – the percentage of population that is low-income with low access to grocery stores, and the percentage of population that did not have access to reliable food sources in the past year. Source: University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute County Health Rankings National Data
Food security is built on three cornerstones:
- Food availability: sufficient quantity on a consistent basis
- Food access: sufficient resources for a nutritious diet
- Food use: appropriate use to sustain nutrition and care (includes access to fresh water and sanitary conditions)
Food Access and Food Deserts
Although some of us budget for our groceries, many of us take the mere existence of grocery stores in our neighborhoods for granted. Food access is a problem in communities throughout the country, where people struggle to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food options. These communities are often referred to as food deserts. While the definition of a food desert is not uniform, these communities share common characteristics. Many people in food deserts lack personal transportation and have limited access to public transit, or have to travel long distances or have long travel times to grocery stores. Often, the only food sources within these communities are convenience stores, which charge higher prices and have more limited options than grocery stores. The low-nutrition grab-and-go selections at these stores are also one possible reason obesity rates in Texas have increased to 30.9% in 2013 from 10% in 1990.
According to the USDA, there are many ways to measure food store access for individuals and for neighborhoods, and many ways to define which areas are food deserts—neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources. Most measures and definitions take into account at least some of the following indicators of access:
- Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area.
- Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability.
- Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.
Food security and food waste are complex sustainability issues woven into our economics and environment, and they impact equity. The Natural Resources Defense Council issued a paper in 2012 that found that getting food from the farm to the fork uses 10% of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50% of U.S. land, and consumes 80% of all freshwater used in the U.S. However, 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten; reducing this waste by 15% would feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
Food Waste and Ugly Food
Food waste begins with production. A large portion of fruits and vegetables are left to rot in the field – and it isn’t because farmers are trying to be wasteful. This happens because we are REALLY picky eaters. We won’t buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables that are just as tasty and nutritious as their “perfect” counterparts, simply because we don’t like the way they look. That is crazy! But it also means that the value of ugly food is so low that farmers would lose money transporting it to market, because of the deep discount they would have give for it. Some groups are trying to work with farmers to recover these crops to sell at discount stores and donate with local food pantries, but there is no widespread effort to recover ugly food. There are also groups that are trying to fight the ugly food stigma, but it is an uphill battle when we’ve been taught that our food should look perfect. The movement is catching on in Europe, so we may have a chance at bringing it to the US.
Food Supply Disruption
With fluctuations in climate, areas of our nation and across the world are experiencing impacts to the growing season for many of the items we enjoy on our table. Extreme weather, such as flooding, drought, and heat waves can result in crop shortages and livestock losses. These shortages can result in higher food prices. Fluctuations in the oil market also impact food prices, since many of the chemicals used as pesticides and fertilizers are byproducts of the petroleum industry. Food also takes fuel to move; the further it moves, the more fuel it uses. Most of the food we eat is no longer sourced locally, so as fuel prices increase, that cost is factored in to your grocery bill. Today, much of our food production has been concentrated to a few areas. If anything happens in those areas, like fires or droughts, it can be felt all the way down the food chain to our table. For example, recent outbreaks of avian flu have impacted the egg and poultry industry. Finally, with a growing population, we have to provide nutritious food for more people, in spite of the challenges presented by climate change and concentrated food production areas.