A paradox of plenty – hunger in America

By Bernd Debusmann
November 24, 2009

Bernd Debusmann–  Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Call it a paradox of plenty. In the world’s wealthiest country, home to more obese people than anywhere else on earth, almost 50 million Americans struggled to feed themselves and their children in 2008. That’s one in six of the population. Millions went hungry, at least some of the time. Things are bound to get worse.

This the bleak picture drawn from an annual survey on “household food security” compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and released in mid-November. It showed the highest level of food insecurity since the government started the survey, in 1995, and provided a graphic illustration of the effect of sharply rising unemployment.

This year’s picture will be even bleaker – the unemployment rate more than doubled from the beginning of 2008 to now, at 10.2 percent the highest in a quarter century. It is still climbing, and for many the distance between losing a job and lack of food security is very short.

In keeping with the American predilection for euphemisms, the word “hunger” does not appear in the report which classes food security into several categories, from “marginal” and “low” to “very low.”

Marginal food security means, in the lexicon of the USDA, “anxiety over food shortages or shortage of food in the house.” The second category, low, means “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet,” but not necessarily less food.

The most severe category, “very low,” used to be labeled “food insecurity with hunger” and is defined as “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” That applied to around 17 million people, up from 12 million in 2007. Black and Hispanic families and single-parent households are the most affected.

It is not the kind of hunger — think African famines, skeletal babies with distended bellies — that brought world leaders to a U.N. food summit in Rome this month to boost aid from rich countries for agricultural development in the Third World. The U.S. is a land of plenty, so much so that a study by the University of Arizona a few years ago found that the average household wastes about 14 percent of their food purchases.

Food is so abundant that overeating is more of a problem, numerically and in terms of public health, than under-nutrition. The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, makes the point that “poverty can make people more vulnerable to hunger as well as obesity,” one of the reasons being that food high in calories is cheaper than healthy food. For many  Americans, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same poverty coin.

(International health statistics put the United States at the top of the obesity league. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight and a third of these are obese.)


Vicki Escarra, head of Feeding America, a hunger relief charity that runs 200 food banks in the U.S., has likened the growing difficulties of those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to conditions in the Third World. She is right in more ways than one.

The USDA report reflects inequality of Third World proportions. While the Great Recession has culled the ranks of American millionaires — by 22 percent according to a September study by the Boston Consulting Group — the gap between rich and poor is not shrinking.

Last year, according to a report by the census bureau, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans made 11.4 times more than those living on the poverty line. The year before, the ratio was 11.2. At the far end of the economic scale, America’s six largest bank holdings have set aside $112 billion in salaries and bonuses during the first nine months of the year. By year’s end, bonuses might exceed the almost $164 billion paid in 2007, before the credit bubble banks had helped to inflate burst and millions of Americans lost their jobs and savings.

Banks and other financial institutions were rescued by a $700 billion infusion of taxpayer money and news of the bonuses coincided with reports that U.S. wages were at a 19-year low. Which helps explain growing anger among a public long famous for lacking the resentment of the rich that is common in other parts of the world.

After all, a bedrock belief in America held that this is the land of unlimited opportunities where every citizen has an equal chance to succeed and become rich. That requires an assumption that the system is fair. How many Americans still believe that? Last summer, a pair of political scientists, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, published a study whose findings included that just 28 percent thought the present distribution of wealth is fair.

More evidence that the gap between myth and reality is shrinking comes from the American Human Development project, a research group which found that “social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other affluent nations…a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances.”

A better chance to avoid food insecurity, too.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

ResentfulofLiesYou came here with basically nothing and so you had appreciation for the little things that you had. Those who come up in our culture are not taught to be appreciative.We grew up in a country where everything is being sold to you from the day you take your first breath. If you pay attention you will notice that everything is a commercial. Everyone wants you to buy what they offer.And in many cases if you do not have a minimum of material possessions you will not be allowed to participate in many areas of life. You need a cell phone or at least a house phone. You need a car or some means to pay for transit. You need a place to sleep. You need to eat. And you need to provide yourself at least a minimum of comfort.ALL of these messages are repeated to you daily. When you live this way from your earliest memories, and no one teaches restraint, responsibility, and accountability, what can one expect?The poor in this country are poor because they are taught to be poor. They are taught to spend (consumerism). They are taught to care only for themselves. They are taught that there is no such thing as enough. They are taught that they are not worthy of respect if they don’t have material possession.You were rich when you got here. You had a spirit. You believed in yourself. And you were taught that common sense is valuable. Poverty begins in the heart.

RESENTFULOFLIES writes: “…the rest are our liability, and should be shamed and not appeased.”And the bankers and financial “wizards” who, due to their unbridled greed and barefaced selfishness, crashed the economy deserve what? According to you, they deserve the public to hand them $12 trillion in cash and loan guarantees. They deserve looking after, nurturing, and, when they scream and cry, having dropped their rattle, for us to dig deep into our pockets and hand them unimaginable sums that no one – not even the poor! – receive.They also have a right to buy politicians and make the system work for them, rather than for us – right?The fact is the United States has to pillage from poor nations to feed its economic growth. No nation has infinite natural resources – growth is finite! The reality is the super rich and people like you, “resentfuloflies”, are impoverishing others in order to enrich yourself. Hypocrite is a word that comes to mind.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

I am an independent self supporting college student. I work 36 hours a week and go to school full time. I my job as a security guard (which I work at during the night as I have classes in the day) pays me $7.50 an hour. My monthly salary usually about $700.After paying rent on my tiny cupboard of a studio apartment, in downtown LA, (which I live in for its relative affordability to most of LA’s terrible rent and its close proximity to the subway that I use to get to school and work) I have about enough money left for little more than cheap bread, rice and water.I cannot afford to eat vegetables very often. Fruit is a luxury. I only eat meat when someone gives me some.I work hard. I am not a drunk or a drug addict. I am not lazy. I am a college student and dont have time, credentials or experience enough to get a better job. No one gives me money. Im not living off mommy and daddy like so many college students in this country can afford to do.I dont have the money to eat as well as I should be able to. Its just that simple people. Some Americans are working hard and struggling. Some of us cant seem to get a break in this lousy economy no matter what we do.I used to go down to the mission and eat free breakfast with the homeless. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I had no other option. It was either eat with the homeless or dont eat at all.

Posted by Starving Student | Report as abusive

I really can not understand how much some people are into that issue when recommending things like:>>Sell your computer and stop paying for the internet.<<In my ears it sounds like “shut up!” and a big ignorance to this people, like some readers here would be just happy if these people left without any voice or opportunity.Selling the used computer will bring how much? 100-200$ ? And canceling internet won’t save much as well.It is not like canceling the WSJ subscription you haven’t read for several month, or the country-club, yacht-club memberships which are luxury.I guess America is not so different to the places i have been so far. And quite everywhere having access to cheap information via internet, be able to search for jobs there, read news is valuable really much if a person wanna stay part of the society. The ability to communicate, and get to the job every morning are vital for keeping some social standard and job. Or could anyone imagine getting a reasonable job without having an address, and number where to be contacted?Sure, there are things like (cable) TV, cigarettes, alcohol which are really not good.But usually drug abuse is just the result of many circumstances. People without hope, or opportunities trying to get calm over and over again by these stuff, or to blur out their own miserable reality by consumption. …

” In the world’s wealthiest country”-so sorryMr Debusmann, the USA has long ceased to be that and manyEuropean countries are much wealthier than the USA…In reality the USA has gone bankrupt years ago and it is kept alive by the ruthless government clique of Chinese communists…The average american citizen eats a bad quality food,receives very low education and health services, his private life is under constant scrutiny of multiple security agencies and must keep working at a very late age…That is also the reason that the USA attracts fresh immigrants only from Third World countries…

Posted by B. Baklis | Report as abusive

The real problem lies at the feet of societies institutions. What we value as a people is reflected in society through private and government programs. The institution of public education is a big influence in this country on our youth. And yet we can’t capture and hold the interest of the student.We can feed all the hungry people we want and watch them multiply to create larger populations that will not be able to fend for themselves. Just look at the US population. There are more opportunities for traditional education here than anywhere. And yet we are getting worse over time. The only real answer is to give serious thought to tweaking our public institutions. Right now we ask students to sit down, shut up and listen in class. You have nothing to contribute for the most part. How do you engage a child in an unnatural state.We value empathy in our families and yet we don’t ask our institutions to reflect that value. How do you teach a kid to love his fellow student from a book? I think our real failure is to make empathy the highest priority in our public schools. Instead we require reading, writing, and arithmetic. We don’t give our kids the opportunity to interact with peers in school. Interaction that will give them the experience of helping others and finding value in themselves. A truly empathetic student always performs better than a thug. There has been much research on cross age peer teaching within our schools. Research done by huge think tanks paid for by the Dept. of Education. This approach taps in to the core motivation of the student, peer pressure. Make the students teach each other and let the teachers become the facilitators. This changes the priority from a dead focus on facts in books to a living focus on students and facts. It will create a highly collaborative society. This is only one small idea in a sea of opportunity. We need to radically change our institutions if we are to continue to grow our populations of the world in harmony. Feeding the hungry is only a band aid. Teaching the teachable has lasting impact. And reevaluating what is taught and how it is taught is the core issue in my humble opinion.

Posted by Brian LeBlanc | Report as abusive

People will always find some excuse not to share what they have with someone who has less. Jesus said to the rich young man, “Give what you have to the poor and come follow me,” and that man went sadly away. If you won’t surrender wealth in exchange for God Himself, the prayer cry “God Bless America” from you who are blessed is a spit in the face to the Great I AM, the One True God, the giver of all things.

Posted by Darrell | Report as abusive

I am living the American dream, I am the child of immgirants (non minority) and have lived around 200% of thew poverty level most of my life. Due to government aid in the form of loans i have been able to secure myself a future through education, and I am currently in medical school. I have never had food stamps. both my parents worked to enable us to eat. While being poor enough to get financial aid for school and have occasionally had to cut costs in my life to eat, I can honestly say that I have never been not able to afford food, unless it was because I was paying for stuff I didn’t need. I have found the answer to my hunger was to just work more hours. Now that I see an end in sight to my working 75 hours a week for peanuts I resent the idea of the government providing handouts to people who wont work to eat, life sometimes isn’t fair but no one who is willing to work at minimum wage even will go hungry, the will just have to work harder.

Posted by living the american dream | Report as abusive

There are those who work hard and don’t get ahead. And there are those who for what ever reason just can’t seem to get a foothold to step up in life.One of the main problems is that the wealthiest and most well established families in our country have worked their way into government. Since there are no term limits on legislators, they can become career politicians. They garner influence and power by making deals with other career politicians and those wealthy few that curry their favor, in exchange for more influence and power.Check the records of most of our legislators and you will find many of them with rap sheets longer than many street criminals. Bush was a cocaine addict and a drunk. Had he been poor, he would have ended up in prison. But the wealth of his family afforded him the opportunity to destroy the American economy and entangle us in unnecessary war.Career politicians need to be removed. And term limits need to be forced on them by will of the people. But as long as the old establishment remains unchecked, there will continue to be an increase in poverty. And the suffering will grow.These posts are clear. Some people make it. Most people don’t. And most poor people are simply hard working folks trying to make ends meet. They are people like our STARVING STUDENT.Poverty and hunger are the result of the way our “system” works.And this is why our system needs to be purged of the cancer that lies within it. I’m not just talking about the career politicians. I’m talking about all of us. It is individual people helping each other in times of need that will keep poverty and hunger away. As long as we care nothing for others, their suffering and death will mean nothing to us. And when we fall into the pit of poverty, no one will care for us either.

The obesity problem is one that is directly related to quality education and economic class. If the obesity problem was simply related to people sitting around and eating all day, the statistics would be way different than they. We need to look at the problem without clouding the issue with what we assume to be true. And we need to stop blaming the victims. Sure, there are “fat cats” around, but unlike obese people of past generations, the obese American is more likely to be of lower income and lesser education. Their diets tend to contain far fewer fresh vegetables(way more expensive, pound for pound)and far greater processed and fast foods than their bodies need. You’ll also find that the great majority of obese families ARE employed and in many cases work far more than 40 hours a week. Because of this, they don’t have the time to prepare properly cooked meals and instead rely on a diet of “value meals” and other nutritionally lacking foods. Even their cooked meals are heavy on corn-based processed items and light on fiber containing fresh fruits and vegetables and other unadulterated items.The high income population can afford fresh veggies and foods that have not been processed or adulterated.The problem is deeper and far different than a population of people paid more than the typical person of other countries who sits on their couch all evening watching TV, drinking beer and chain-noshing Doritos. The problem is with properly educating our people(and yes, our immigrants)and with limiting the corporate farms’ monopolies on our food sources and the carte blanche we give them to do whatever they want to our food(without labeling our food as having been processed in many particular ways) before we even get our hands on it.This brings me to a subject that several people responding to this editorial have addressed. These people have fallen for the myth that corporate food producers want you to believe-that myth being that “food is grown on farms by farmers”. Very little of our food is being grown by George and Martha Farmer on their family farm in Iowa. If George and Martha still own their land, chances are they’ve been contracted to grow a crop for one of a handful of corporate food producers. Chickens no longer cluck and strut around their farm, and cows no longer graze in their pastures. The majority of animals raised for consumption in this country never see light of day, or even eat a diet that they’ve evolved for millennia to eat (or if you prefer, that God intended them to eat). Yes, a small percentage of food is still being grown the traditional way and happily, there seems to be renewed support for these dedicated farmers. Unfortunately, most of us can’t bear to pay tripple the price of “regular” food.***This subject is well covered in a documentary film (available on DVD) called “Food, Inc.” I HIGHLY recommend watching it.***

Posted by Dorothy and Toto | Report as abusive

I lost my job because it is cheaper for my ex employer to produce their product in a different country.However they never take into the concept that the people cannot afford the product they produce. they also don’t take in the fact that when they make us unemployed we cannot afford their product.They only gain a quick profit,but they did not seek a sustainable one.The short sightedness of these corporations and the greed mongers of wall street has to end.sustainable profits are always smaller. However these small gains are reliable assets that corporations should base LONG TERM INVESTMENTS on!

Posted by tp Giblin | Report as abusive

This article is a load of bull. Sure, the US has its share of worthless bums, but so does every other nation, and no one is walking around here with distended bellies from starvation. There are plenty of food banks and welfare – no one goes hungry here other than by personal choice.There isn’t even any real poverty here. The average “poor family” in the US owns their own home, has two cars, two televisions, etc. What we do have are too many professional whiners like Bernd Debusmann who make up crap so they can get attention and funding.

Posted by woodNfish | Report as abusive

eat eat eat, that’s the problem, we evolved as hairless running machines, being relatively weak in natural defenses and no natural claws or sharp teeth etc., our ancestors who could run farther and longer survived. ever seen a hundred year old obese person, we all have to take responsibility for ourselves own fate. our bodies are designed to store fat when we can get it cause the next meal might be long off and require effort. stop expecting the easy way out. its time to bring down the McEaters to earth make tie their own shoes get off their collective huge behinds. stop blaming others, be it restaurants or other food suppliers. is it any wonder so-called third world religions hate us, we consume too much and let our daughters dress like whores, tell me why would a toddler would need a bikini or a halter top. come on people put away the dirty sweats and clothes that don’t fit , dress and act your age, treat the earth as a God, and please ban tights sizes bigger than medium. unless of course one has a physical affliction keeping them from partaking, exercise and a lot of tree planting is the only cure for North America. skinny4life

Posted by poppatune | Report as abusive

Obese people should be forced to pay higher taxes based on their Body Mass Index. The higher your BMI, the higher your taxes. Why? Because fat people cost tons of money in social services and health costs. Studies show that the fatter you are, the sicker you’ll be. The good thing is: fat people die young.

Posted by julio Moreno | Report as abusive

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hates to use words like “hunger” and “malnutrition” in the same sentence as the “United States.” Out of sight, out of mind. That said, there is a body of skills and knowledge which are rarely possessed by the newly indigent. A middle-class family living close to the edge that suddenly loses its income does not have the background of street-smarts, knowledge or skills possessed by the long-term homeless or welfare family. The public library doesn’t stock many books that address “what to do and where to go when the cupboard is bare and the rent is due.” Maybe it’s time that a few were written. And yes, it’s hard for a newbie to apply for welfare or visit a church’s food pantry for help but that’s why they’re there.Some churches or libraries have programs that address “between-jobs-survival.” If not, talk to them about sponsoring such a program. The best time to attend is …. before you need to.

Posted by Bob Walton | Report as abusive

““disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” That applied to around 17 million people”There is a diabolically simple plan at work here. Allow immigrants to flood over the borders, then add them to the list of people who the government must help.This then, becomes a tangible that liberals can point to while screaming “We need socialism! Only more government can help!”Most people want to help others, and most Americans do, but empowering governments to help also empowers them to harm.Studies like this, then, are just one more reason that liberals always oppose enforcement of immigration laws.

Posted by Nelno | Report as abusive

This is the result of corporate citizenship. Corporations are citizens under our law. They use their well payed lobbyists to champion their interests. While the interests of true citizens are sold away.

The price, a career in politics that is profitable and long.
Term limits need to be instituted in the legislature. The courts must strike down corporate citizenship. Only when the legislature is composed of people who truly wish to serve the interests of the citizen, will meaningful change begin.

Corporate interests give lip service to “values” and living a in a morally upright society where everyone is respected. But at the same time they destroy society by stealing money intended for the honoring of contracts and call it “profit”, and by their blatant disregard for those who’s lives have been decimated by their corruption and greed.

Meanwhile our politicians feed this diseased economy for their own profit. They prove their disgust for the citizenry by not even having the honor to limit their terms for the good of the nation they claim to love so much.

The result is that companies can get away with degrading our food supply. They get away with throwing thousands if not millions, of families into destitution. And they are free to profit from the suffering they cause and are encouraged to do so. This they call economic growth. And we are supposed to believe that this is good for us.

Where are the people of reason who see this? They should be speaking more. They should be making their voices heard and their presence known.

One or two voices pointing out the obvious won’t do it alone. The rest need to speak up as well.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive