Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Subsidise fruit not fries: addressing food insecurity in America

1 in 6 American families are food insecure. Put simply, they are going hungry.

The Federal government has relied on food assistance programs to meet the needs of the poorest families. Last year, it spent $80 billion on its Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program alone. But budgets have been cut, reducing the amount of money in people's pockets. Reliance on non-profit food banks has increased sharply but they are unable to provide nutritionally-balanced food, like fruit and vegetables, because they are perishable.

In addition, hunger is no longer confined to the poorest or those who are unemployed. Two-thirds of food-insecure families with children have at least one adult in work. The problem, once again, is that wages have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living. After rent, bills and other necessities have been paid, there is often little left over for food.

The consequences of food insecurity are greatest for children, because health problems that set in early on are difficult to reverse. In areas where money is tight, the demand for luxuries falls, reducing the supply of supermarkets and increasing the prevalence of cheap fast-food restaurants. For this reason and others, hungry children are at a higher risk of obesity. Over a lifetime, child obesity costs $19,000 per child in medical costs ($14 billion for all current 10 year olds). Worse, many will have shorter lives than their parents.

Obesity, caused by food insecurity, has the potential to reduce the capacity of the future US workforce exactly at the time when a larger, more skilled workforce is required to support an ageing population. This is a multi-faceted problem, that captures costs, family income, lifestyle and parental education. But here are just two solutions that would tackle it at source.

To deal with rising costs, subsidise the production of fruit and vegetables. Currently, agricultural subsidies for US corn production end up inadvertently reducing the price of corn-based products like fizzy drinks or corn-fed meat, which results in cheap meat and snacks in our shops. So an adjustment to expenditure (not new money) could change consumption behaviour.

To deal with falling real incomes, raise wages. Company profitability would be supported because the workforce can afford a healthier lifestyle and are less likely to take sick days. Government finances would be boosted because higher wages lead to higher tax contributions and falling levels of income support. And tomorrow's growth is secured because higher take-home pay increases investment into children, reducing the future burden, and increasing the future capacity, of tomorrow's workforce.

1 comment:

Abha said...

Dear Priya,

Thank you for highlighting this problem. I agree the US government's subsidising of corn has been disastrous for the health of the US population. I wonder whether a nationwide education initiative about healthy, affordable eating choices would be beneficial? I wonder also if the increase in sales of cheap fast food is related to declining skills in home economics? Could the state do more to encourage these skills, particularly in adolescents, at school? Or is this already too late?