A symptom of rising socioeconomic inequality in America is the emerging gulf between those who always have enough food to eat and those who regularly worry about where their next meal is coming from. The nonprofit organization Humanities New York invited panelists and local community members to share ideas and experiences of the underlying causes and social impact of—as well as possible responses to—food insecurity at the Family Partnership Center in Poughkeepsie on Dec. 6.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as unreliable access to food in households due to socioeconomic conditions. Vassar Sociology Professor Leonard Nevarez framed the extent of the food insecurity in the local community by elaborating on results of surveys conducted from 2010 to 2012, saying, “An estimated 26 percent of households in the City of Poughkeepsie were food insecure.” Nevarez continued, “That was a survey that was taken four to six years ago…Sadly, we don’t know of any reason to believe that it has gotten better.”
Other panelists generally agreed with the results of the survey and described their experience working with households suffering from food insecurity. During her time with the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program at Hudson River Health Care, Nutrition Educator Bintou Hinds said, “One person who really stayed with me [was a mom whose] husband had been laid-off [and who] was working a minimum wage job.” Hinds had to inform the woman, who had three young children, that her kids were either ineligible for or wouldn’t receive food vouchers for a few weeks. She continued, “The mom crumpled right in front of us. She’s a working mom, she has a lot of pride and as she got up to leave, she mumbled, ‘You’re going to starve my baby.’”
Food insecurity can affect all individuals— from families with small children to young people or the elderly—who experience a shortage in personal finances. Scenic Hudson Urban Designer Peter Barnard elaborated, “I was actually extremely food insecure after graduating from college. I was a guy who basically only ate because I worked at a restaurant. I would be working 14 hour days, and a slice of pizza at the end of the day was the highlight of my day … When food insecurity hits, it catches you completely off-guard.”
The shift from local food sources to globalized supply chains and international economy has contributed to food insecurity by raising the cost of and lowering access to nutritious food. From the Benjamin Center of SUNY New Paltz, Senior Research Associate Joshua Simons explained, “When you have somebody who is working poor or impoverished or food-insecure, they’re faced with a decision on how to eat: the way that they stretch their dollar is not toward nutrition but calories. And we have a food system that benefits from that [by selling] calorie-dense and nutritionally void foods [for cheap].”
Reversing the trend towards large quantities of low-quality food production by agribusinesses requires a change in government policy and creativity on the part of local farmers. Director of the Local Economics Project Bob Dandrew commented, “Our food system is largely governed by about 20 corporations nationally [subsidized by the government]. They don’t subsidize any of the farmers here at Dutchess County.”
In addition to increasing the distribution of food from local farmers, Nubian Directions AmeriCorps Director Mario Johnson reiterated the importance of educating youth to eat healthy and suggested, “One thing that’s fortunate is that we’ve maintained the 22 community gardens throughout the City of Poughkeepsie…What we did is give students the opportunity of connecting to the earth. When the plants started to grow…when [the students] started seeing that and started taking it home, there was a connection there.” Revisiting the stakes of food insecurity, Nevarez concluded, “We have to remember that [poverty] is disproportionate among children. And so they are someone we have to take care of. They are also our future, they have a lot of energy and they have promise.”