Inequity In Real Time: Food Insecurity

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“We cannot change what we are not aware of.” – Sheryl Sandberg

On February 13, 2021, Storm Uri hit Texas (and surrounding states) in a wintery way that we hadn’t seen since 2011. Texans were left without power, gas and water for days, weeks, and for some, they are still without gas and water as you are reading this. The aftermath of the energy problem and how we improve our infrastructure and prepare for future disasters are currently being ironed out at the state and local levels. But one particular issue that was brought to the forefront that shows the continuous inequity of our system: food insecurity. The BIPOC Austin City Council members mentioned in a letter to the City Manager on February 21, 2021 about the City’s responsibility to help Austinites, because: “Food insecurity was a serious issue before this disaster due to the pandemic”. 

I read this line in their letter, and thought, do people really know what that means? Do I really know what that means? 

Over the last month, I have been educating myself, and even attended a timely webinar from Zocalo featuring agricultural Scientist Molly Jahn. So let’s start off with the definition of food insecurity and the nuance around it in relation to hunger: 

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. It is important to know that though hunger and food insecurity are closely related, they are distinct concepts. Hunger refers to a personal, physical sensation of discomfort, while food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for food at the household level.” 

Feeding America

So hunger and food insecurity are not the same thing.

In fact, I would say our community supports staple non-profits like the Central Texas Food Bank that fight hunger. The food bank was the #1 donated charity during the popular city-wide fundraiser Amplify Austin this year (which occurred after the storm). But even in 2020, the Food Bank landed in the  4th spot in Amplify Austin. So it’s clear that we want to be in the fight against hunger, but can our non-profits address food insecurity? 

Now for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on people living above the poverty line who are struggling with food insecurity. People experiencing homelessness and poverty in urban and rural areas face a different set of challenges that I am not here to address today. I want to focus on those who are not able to qualify for certain assistance, but yet, a lost job due to COVID-19 or a busted pipe in their apartment during a winter storm is intensifying their life that is as adjacent as one could be to food insecurity. 

So here are the poverty lines as determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. For a family of four, the poverty line is $26,500 which is approximately $12.70/hr. So working a minimum wage job, means you are below the poverty line. Let me repeat, if you work a minimum wage job you are below the poverty line ($7.25/hr). But you can receive SNAP benefits in the State of Texas (if you qualify) up to making $34,450 which is about $16.50/hr. If you look on the Living Wage website, created by MIT, a family of 4’s living expenses average around TWICE the amount of $34,450. You need to make approximately $32.69/hr to meet those expenses. And these living expenses are based on estimated needs; their list is not talking about wants or frivolous expenditures.

So how do people afford to live? Debt, my friends. According to a survey last Fall by the PEW Charitable Trusts, 80% of Americans are caught in the chain of debt and CNBC detailed out the average debt by generation. 

So I want to make it clear, if you are a family making between $34,000 and $60,000 with two kids, you are likely working AND struggling to live without using debt. I would add the average housing wage to be able to live in Austin, but if you live in and around Austin, you already know that the average person cannot afford to live here anymore. But I don’t want it to be missed, that our families are working AND living with food insecurity. The United Way for Greater Austin has a “Tale of Two Cities” experience that makes you choose between necessary living expenses when you live in this food insecurity space. It is harder than you think to decide between a medical issue, car repair and putting food on the table. 

This is why organizations like Feeding Texas have been screaming from the mountain top since last fall that Texas families didn’t have enough food to eat due to the pandemic: “More than 2.5 million households in Texas didn’t always have enough food to eat in November, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.” (link) 

This is one of the reasons our food banks are so important, because they truly are a go between for working Texans experiencing food insecurity. But even our food banks can take a hit with cuts in Federal and State programs that help get excess food from Farmers to Food bank programs. (More info on that here) 

I personally do not know what it is like to go without food, but I was raised by someone who was. My mother’s story is not unique, she had 9 siblings and all of them did not know what it was like to go a day without food. There was a time when my grandfather worked and made good money. He had a stroke and eventually passed away. The older kids never went hungry, but the younger children were faced with a very different life due to an unexpected medical incident. It is important to understand that the struggle with food security can be fluid. At one moment, putting food on the table is not a foreseen challenge, and the next week it is. 

So what can we do?

When I started researching for this blog, it was not written to be a “raise the minimum wage” manifesto, because we all know that is a deeply divided issue politically. However, it is clear that experts in the field have a variety of ways on how to fix food insecurity, but one glaring solution I kept reading includes raising the minimum wage. The biggest argument is that small businesses would be ravaged.

Maybe?

But our communities are being ravaged. Our kids are expected to learn in a place where having food is like being in a perpetual maze with no way out. We have to set a standard for people to be able to afford to live when they have a job. Because when we say, “if only people experiencing homelessness had a job, and a place to live, they would get off the streets and be able to survive”. We actually know that not to be true.

If this doesn’t resonate with you, you’re in luck, I have a small practical solution for you, don’t waste food. Yes, reducing personal food consumption can help in ways that I did not understand, but you can read about here and here as the last point on both of these lists. Since COVID-19 forced us into quarantine, I cooked more food than ever before, and I was wasting it until I actively created a no-waste zone. It was not easy at first. But I used my privilege to seriously think about what I needed to eat every time I went to the grocery store. I used my fully functioning and fed brain to remember common foods that I would waste and either buy less of it, or admit to myself that I can eat this food responsibly (some of ya’ll just need to give up spinach, amirite?). I know this seems small, but every bit of change, makes a difference in the world.

Until next time,

Fran