The U.S. tops statistics for both food insecurity and obesity. There’s a long history that got us here.
The U.S. is the only country in the world to top the global lists for both obesity and hunger. And most startlingly, it’s often the same groups of people experiencing both. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 88.2 percent of American households—more than 40 million people—experienced food insecurity in 2017, with another 4.5 percent of households classified as having “very low food security.” Food insecurity is defined as not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
So how did one of the wealthiest nations in the world arrive at a point where so many suffer from hunger? To answer that question we have to look at the historical forces that have shaped today’s food landscape, habits, and values, and follow the evolution of a nation of people who’ve gone from surviving off the land to one where a majority of 6-year-olds can’t trace the source of an apple beyond the grocery store.
According to an article in The Journal of Ethnic Foods, early Native Americans were exclusively hunter-gatherers, living off the plants and animals. Their diets consisted largely of foraged foods such as ramps, a root vegetable that looks like scallions, and hunted for meat like bison. Tribes gradually transitioned to at least a partial reliance on agriculture as a means of obtaining a stable food supply. The “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) were the major staples of Native American agriculture by the time colonists arrived in North America.
Unlike in modern slaughterhouses where much of the animal carcass is disposed of, when Native American killed a bison, they made use of the whole animal. The hide was used for shelter, blankets, shoes, and clothing. The fat from the bison was used to make pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein. Tribes would dip bison meat into hot pemmican and hang it to dry, yielding preserved protein referred to as jerky.
When early settlers to North America faced severe hunger many starved but many more were saved from starvation thanks to aid from Native Americans. Once colonists adapted to conditions in the New World, hunger became rare—thanks to fertile soil for planting crops, game hunting, near-full employment, and the old European philosophy of Noblesse oblige, the notion that the upper class is obliged to look after the needs of the working class. Imagine that!
The colonization of North America also meant the introduction of new foods from Britain, continental Europe, and the West Indies. These included potatoes and rice which, along with corn, became staples in the American diet. Today, these foods continue to be a staples, particularly for the poor, however, they might be unrecognizable to colonists because, according to food historian Ben Wurgaft, today these staples are predominantly sold and consumed in highly processed or fast-food form, such as corn syrup or french fries, to people without access to fresher or more diverse foods.
The Atlantic slave trade introduced African foodstuffs and flavorings, especially in the southern colonies, where to this day spicy and pungent food is more popular than in other regions of the country. Think jambalaya, gumbo, and chitlins.
With each successive migration, America became a more diverse “melting pot,” a distinguishing trait that is still reflected in today’s food culture. “We’re such a plural, polyglot collection of cultures that I don’t think it makes much sense to speak of ‘American food,’” says Wurgaft.
The Great Transatlantic Migration (1870-1914), for instance, brought 15 million immigrants, mainly from central, eastern, and southern Europe with their various culinary traditions such as dumplings (Eastern Europe), lasagna (Italy), and hamburgers, sausages and pickles (Germany).
Government intervention in addressing the needs of the poor and food insecure didn’t begin until well into the 19th century when local authorities across the country began administering “Poor Laws.” Not unlike calls from conservatives in the modern era, bootstrapping was expected of anyone unemployed who looked able to work (including many we today would see as mentally disabled) and women who were judged as immoral if they’d had children outside of marriage. Those considered unworthy of aid, including recent immigrants, were moved into almshouses. The popular belief was that these institutions would provide the opportunity for reform curing the poor of bad habits and character defects that were assumed by many to be the cause of poverty.
Just as the imposition of stringent work requirements does little to move long-term unemployed SNAP recipients into the workforce, almshouses did little to cure poverty. Finally, with the passage of the landmark Social Security Act of 1935, the federal government entered the ring establishing benefits, for the aged, blind, and dependent and disabled children, as well as a safety net for women and children, and the unemployed.
Some of the most radical changes to the American food landscape happened during the first two decades of the 20th century. During these years, modern food science, Progressive reforms, and the need to preserve food for shipment overseas during WWI, came together to fundamentally alter American thinking on food.
Americans began consuming more foods that were mass-produced by the likes of General Mills, Campbell’s, and Kraft Foods. This translated to higher sodium intake and a switch from a diet high in complex carbohydrates, naturally occurring in grains and vegetables, to a dramatic increase in the number of carbohydrates especially refined sugar.
Sugar is the number-one food additive in our food supply today. Added sugar is everywhere and often hidden in unlikely places such as processed hot dogs, spaghetti sauce, crackers, and yogurt. Calories derived from either added sugar or refined carbohydrates have profoundly negative effects on the body, and the rise in chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, can be traced directly to the changes in the American diet brought on by the consumption of mass-produced refined sugar.
The role of women in the labor force also shaped food habits during the 20th Century. Increasingly, more women had less time at their disposal to prepare the family meals. And since men weren’t—ahem—picking up the slack at home, convenience became paramount. In response, food manufacturers developed new products requiring minimal preparation, such as frozen entrees. As less and less time has been on spent in food preparation over the past century, there’s been a corresponding and well-documented shift towards eating even more processed and fast foods contributing further to decreased nutrient density in the overall American diet, and the aforementioned chronic diseases now plaguing the healthcare system.
While insufficient nutrient intake leads to chronic disease. General famine is a tragedy of a different scale–one the U.S. has mostly been spared with the notable exception of the Great Depression. Numbers vary, but a significant number of Americans died of starvation and malnutrition during the Depression and some 2.5 million people fled the Plains states between 1930 and 1940 in search of employment and greater food security.
By the late 1940s, charitable and government relief efforts had substantially reduced hunger within the U.S. and hunger was considered a solved problem by many politicians. This misperception was dramatically put to rest in 1967 when Senator Robert Kennedy toured the Mississippi Delta, shining a spotlight on extreme poverty and hunger in the deep south. The Watts riots in 1965 and the 1968 riots in Washington, DC, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination also called attention to blighted conditions in America’s cities. Pressured by the public, politicians called for change, and in the 1970s, government spending on hunger relief grew exponentially, with welfare as the chief means of addressing it. In the 1980s and 1990s the pendulum swung again as welfare provisions were significantly scaled back by presidents Reagan and Clinton, respectively.
For Native Americans, daily life consisted of finding enough food to stay alive. A little extra flesh on the bones was a sign of prosperity. As food became more abundant, less expensive, and more convenient, waistlines expanded as did the packaged/processed food industry. Diet-related problems such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer are on the rise generating yet another commercial spin-off—pharmaceutical companies that make billions of dollars developing treatments for health problems associated with calorically dense, nutritionally deficient food choices.
Author of My Organic Life, Nora Pouillon, encapsulates American food habits of the past century, “Before World War II, there was no such thing as organic food. All food was organic, Food was just food—plants, grains, meats, and dairy that we could all recognize or grow. There were no long lists of ingredients on packages that you couldn’t pronounce, much less have any idea what they did to your body or the environment.” Thanks to trailblazers like Pouillon, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others there are signs of an ‘organic’ renaissance. These signs include the popularity of Farmers’ markets, locally sourced organic food sections in large supermarkets, farm-to-table restaurants, and the root-to-stem and nose-to-tail trends. However, not everyone can afford (nor does everyone desire) an organic apple that costs 20 to 60 percent more than its non-organic counterpart or a $5 bunch of hand-foraged ramps.
Yet even with awareness about the benefits of a healthy diet on the rise, there is little evidence that au courant trends of eating more organic, and less processed food will solve America’s food insecurity problem. In order for that to occur, broader issues such as income and racial inequality, and the proper role of government in protecting the neediest among us must first be addressed.
This is part two of a three-part explainer series on food insecurity. You can read part one here. Learn more about food insecurity and how it affects women in America in our new podcast, The Fifty One. You can read more about the series and listen to the first episode here.
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