Critics and anti-poverty advocates are questioning the so-called economic recovery as a USDA study (PDF) published Wednesday revealed that while the nation's wealthiest enjoyed record gains, nearly 50 million Americans continued to struggle with food insecurity in 2013.
According to the government figures, while a majority of people who were not always able to afford food last year were adults, 16 million children also went hungry at times, with 360,000 households reporting that their kids skipped meals or did not eat for an entire day because there was not enough money.
Joel Berg, executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, said the country's widespread hunger problem is deeply connected to the government's pro-corporation, anti-worker policies. "A country that combines massive hunger with record Wall Street markets is so derailed we can't even find our tracks anymore," Berg said. "These startling numbers prove there has been no true economic recovery for tens of millions of struggling U.S. families."
Overall, food insecurity is 35 percent higher than in 2007, before the recession began. In 2013, the average food-secure household spent 30 percent more on food than the average food-insecure household of the same size.
"Too many people at the top don't understand the difference between Wall Street and Main Street," Berg told Common Dreams. Corporations resettling overseas to avoid paying higher taxes in the U.S.—as exemplified by Burger King's recent merger with Canadian food chain Tim Horton's—is "supremely unpatriotic," Berg said. Asked whether government officials are willfully ignoring hunger statistics, Berg said, simply and emphatically, "Yes."
The research comes shortly after the Harvard School of Public Health released a study showing that the healthy diet gap between rich and poor Americans doubled between 1999 and 2010. That study, published earlier this week, found that differences in diet are directly related to both cost and access, as low-income people are more likely to live in "food deserts" — areas that have few to no grocery stores selling healthy produce, forcing families who cannot afford to travel outside of their neighborhoods to rely on corner stores selling boxed and processed food.
“The overall improvement in diet quality is encouraging, but the widening gap related to income and education presents a serious challenge to our society as a whole,” said the study's senior author, Walter Willett, professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at HSPH.
Of all the food-insecure households that participated in the 2013 survey, 62 percent received assistance from federal food and nutrition assistance programs. "It is vital to note that this new data was collected before most of the recent SNAP (food stamps) cuts kicked in," Berg wrote in a press release for the coalition. "Given the pain measured in these numbers, I can only imagine that next year's report, which will include the impact of the recent cuts, will more formally document the mass suffering we are already seeing on the ground from coast to coast."
The Food Research and Action Center also noted that the "severe" food insecurity rate was 5.6 percent in 2013, compared to 4.1 percent in 2007 before the recession.
"Hunger continues to plague too many Americans," said FRAC president Jim Weill. "We can end hunger in this country, but that takes political will. It is up to our nation’s leaders – Congress, the President, state and local officials – to make sure that workers can earn family supporting wages, and that income supports and nutrition assistance programs reach more people in need and provide more adequate benefits. That means strengthening, not cutting or limiting nutrition programs."
Fast food workers in 150 cities across the U.S. on Thursday will launch strikes and sit-ins to demand a $15 minimum wage, the right to organize in the workplace, and an end to wage theft, a move that the coalition supports. "It's appalling that the people who grow our food and serve our food can't afford to eat," Berg said.
The day of action is being organized by employees of McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and KFC, who are expected to be joined by thousands of home healthcare providers, with an end goal of building a movement of low-wage workers.
"Sometimes things have to bottom out... before people wake up," Berg said. "I think that waking up is happening now."