How bad is hunger in America?
Well, it depends which numbers you look at.
It’s 5.6 percent of U.S. households based on what most would consider hunger – the official federal definition of “very low food security,” which means that a family often struggles to get enough to eat.
But 14 percent of households in 2014 had very low or “low food security,” meaning that they had to cut back on the quality, variety or desirability of food, but not necessarily the amount.
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In California, the most recent numbers, for 2012-14, are an average of 5.1 percent with very low food security and 13.5 percent with very low or low food security. That’s a total of 5.2 million people.
The broader number is probably a more accurate measure of families who sometimes don’t have the food needed for a healthy and active life. But you also have to recognize that the higher numbers are highlighted by advocacy groups that have a vested interest and are seeking more money for their cause, as worthy as it is.
So in its most recent report, Feeding America uses the broader measure and says that 48 million Americans fall in this category, and that it would take $24.5 billion to meet the entire need. It warns that food insecurity can lead to bad grades in school, low productivity at work and physical and mental problems.
The group, which represents 200 food banks across the country, produced an interactive online map so you can look up the situation by state and county. In the region, Sacramento County is worst, with 16.7 percent of households facing food insecurity, equal to nearly 243,000 people.
Feeding America says the numbers better reflect the need for food assistance than just the poverty rate, since some households above the poverty line are at risk of hunger.
This same issue – what is the most accurate measurement – applies to poverty, too. There’s the traditional rate, then there’s a supplemental rate that factors in cost of living, as well as government assistance and child care, medical and tax expenses.
In 2014, the Census Bureau’s official national rate was 14.8 percent, while its supplemental number was 15.3 percent, putting nearly 1.4 million more Americans under the poverty line. The difference is far wider in California, and the state comes out looking much worse. In 2013, the official rate was 16 percent, but the supplemental rate was 23.4 percent, the highest in the nation.
However we slice and dice the numbers, we always have to remember that they represent real people – maybe our neighbors or friends or work colleagues. Completely eliminating hunger and poverty may be too much to ask, but we should do the best we can, or at least better than we are.
By the numbers
Food insecurity rates and number of people in selected California counties:
- Sacramento: 16.7%, 242,830
- Fresno: 16.0%, 151,960
- San Joaquin: 15.6%, 109,110
- Merced: 15.5%, 40,480
- Yolo: 15.2%, 31,100
- Stanislaus: 15.0%, 78,380
- San Francisco/Marin: 14.9%, 162,290
- Los Angeles: 14.0%, 1,393,170
- San Diego: 13.3%, 423,130
- El Dorado: 13.0%, 23,650
- Placer: 12.6%, 45,470
Source: Feeding America