Thank You for the Food We Eat

More people are going hungry than you might think, 
but you can have a big impact


As you read this, you might be prepping for a big Thanksgiving feast, or you could have just finished one. Perhaps you're digging into leftovers of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Or maybe you don't know how or where you'll get your next meal.

It's a sad but fitting reality that in the land of plenty, so many have so little. Particularly when so much food, including a lot of those Thanksgiving leftovers, goes in the trash.

A mortifying statistic: More than a third of food in the U.S. goes to waste every day, said Bruce Ganger, Second Harvest North Florida executive director, during his recent TEDxJacksonville talk.

Packages with expiration dates that really don't mean anything. Milk with sell-by dates that will still be good for several more days. Fresh fruits and vegetables that don't pass grocery stores' perfect appearance requirements. Crops left unpicked because it would cost too much to harvest them. And, yes, the food we let rot in our own refrigerators.

The problem is not that we don't have enough food to feed everyone, Ganger said. The problem is moving it to where it needs to be.

That's where Second Harvest North Florida comes in. It will distribute more than 24 million pounds of food in 2013 through a complex logistics network that picks up food that would otherwise be dumped, sorts it at a warehouse, then ships it back out to nonprofit agencies in 17 counties. Second Harvest has leveraged relationships with large food suppliers like ConAgra and retail partners like Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Publix, BJs and Target to stretch each dollar to generate seven meals — the equivalent of two days of food for a person in need. If every one of Folio Weekly's more than 132,000 readers donated $1, that would pay for 924,000 meals, enough to feed more than 10,000 people for a month.

But so many people remain blind to the hunger problem. They've never worried about how they will pay for their next meal.

Those who are food insecure often look like everyone else. Many are working poor who can't make ends meet, forced to choose between spending money on rent or gas or food. One in six adults experience food insecurity each day in the United States.

And many are children: One out of every four doesn't know where her next meal will come from.

The problem is exacerbated by a decrease in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The 2009 Recovery Act's temporary boost to SNAP benefits ended on Nov. 1, making the average about $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

In a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, nutrition experts said most SNAP benefit levels are based on unrealistic assumptions about food costs, preparation time and access to grocery stores, and recommended changing the calculation to better ensure households have enough resources to purchase an adequate diet.

What can you afford at $1.40 per meal? Foods with longer shelf lives that tend to be less nutritious — heavy in preservatives, fats, salt and refined sugar. These are called "energy-dense" foods because they have more calories per dollar, but they're less likely to fill you up because they contain fewer nutrients and hold less satiating power, according to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This could result in "passive overeating and therefore weight gain." Plus, foods high in fat and sugar taste good, sending signals to our brains that reinforce a poor diet.

"Evidence is emerging that obesity in America is a largely economic issue," the 
report states.

Add to that increasingly sedentary jobs, unaffordable gym memberships, those working multiple jobs who lack time to work out, low-income neighborhoods deemed too dangerous for children to play outdoors, and "food desert" communities with no well-stocked supermarkets easily accessed by foot or public transportation.

This is how people who are food insecure can end up becoming obese and having epidemic levels of chronic diseases. All of Northeast Florida, except St. Johns County, has higher age-adjusted diabetes death rates than the state average. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese in the "food deserts" of Duval County's Northside 
and Westside.

Some have started community gardens, such as The Bridge of Northeast Florida in Springfield and Ju'Coby Pittman with the Clara White Mission, which also gave out nearly 147,000 meals in 2012. The Sulzbacher Center and City Rescue Mission serve hundreds of thousands of meals each year, and Trinity Lutheran Church fed more than 41,000 people with 267,110 bags of food last year.

The problem of hunger is immense, and it seems almost insurmountable. But Ganger assured us that it's not. Second Harvest and many other organizations are showing that we can alleviate the symptoms of hunger. The underlying causes, however, will take more than logistics to solve.

This column is not meant to make you feel guilty for your bounty. But perhaps it will make you a little more grateful for it — and induce you to share some of what you have.

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