Deserts and Desserts – How America came to be both hungry and obese

11 November, 2014


By Yuxin Hou

Jim Dreier is in his mid-30s, white, married with two kids, a bit overweight and lives in Mitchell County, Iowa. He has a full time job, a big house, a Dodge van, and a flat-screen TV in his living room. Yet Jim and his wife Christina often scramble to find their next meal. Their food stamps last only about three weeks out of the month; the rest of their meals often depend on the nearby food pantry. Christina sometimes sends their three-year old son Keagan to preschool with an empty tummy in the hope that he will eat the free meal provided at school, which leaves more food at home for lunch. Jim Dreier is a farmer.

It seems ironic that a farmer who lives in the richest country and largest agricultural producer in the world has to live on food stamps provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP). Yet Jim is but one of the tens of millions of “food-insecure” – a term which denotes lack of consistent access to adequate food – Americans. The number of people going hungry in the US has been growing dramatically: 57 percent since the late 1990s, and a shocking five-fold jump since the late 1960s. By 2012, there were 48 million food-insecure citizens, or 17.6 million households, on the government book. One in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year.

At the same time, the US produced 13.92 billion bushels of corn and 3.29 billion bushels of soybeans in 2013, accounting for more than 30 percent of the world production of both crops. It’s not the case that the country does not have enough food to feed its people. So why are people going hungry?

The image of hunger in the US today differs remarkably from the usual image one thinks of. About 60 percent of food-insecure households have at least one working family member; the hungry may have all the trappings of a middle-class life, many are actually overweight like Jim himself. One may ask how both could be true. While many things can be bought on installment plans, money is indeed part of the problem for most of these people, as even with a fulltime job, their salaries aren’t enough to keep the family fed. Ironically for Jim Dreier, with crop prices so low, his fulltime salary on a commercial farm does not leave him much left to buy food after paying the monthly bills. Another thing is that most of the food people have access to with their food stamps or at the food pantry are processed foods and high in sugar, salt and fat. Some neighborhoods in many of the largest cities like Houston are crammed with fast-food restaurants but few grocery stores, earning them the reputation of “food deserts”. 

The other issue is pricing. Since the early 1980s, the price of fresh food has risen steadily while the cost of sugary treats like Coke has dropped. In the past 30 years, the real cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by 24 percent. Meanwhile the cost of nonalcoholic beverages – primarily sweetened with corn syrup – has dropped by 27 percent. For the food-insecure, a healthy diet is not only hard to access, but also simply not affordable. When a hungry person faces the trade-off between food that is nutritious but more expensive and harder to access versus something that is filling, unhealthy but cheap and easy, the choice is obvious. Today processed food makes up 70 percent of the US diet.

The reason why the cost of some food has fallen while others have gotten more dear is government support. The US government spent close to $300 billion on crop related subsidies and insurance between 1995 and 2012. Most of the subsidies go to a few staple crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, produced mainly by large agricultural companies and co-operatives. Subsidies on corn and soy together accounted for $11 billion in 2012. While in 2011, the total subsidies and insurances on “specialty crops” – the bureaucratic term for fruits and vegetables – were only $1.6 billion altogether.

At least one reason for this is that, compared to specialty crops, staple crops are in much greater demand and have a wider spectrum of usage: much of American corn is made into bio-fuel, sweeteners, and together with soybeans, animal feed. Staple crops are more easily commoditized, stored and transported. Also in the US, more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans are genetically modified,which means their production is in the interests of a few giant seeding companies such as Syngenta and Pioneer.Today in America, subsidies in many cases are the key incentive for planting, as there is little space to make any profit without a government subsidy - “farmers plant to the agri bill the way teachers teach to the test”.The subsidies reduce crop prices, which in turn has driven overall food prices down. At the same timethey contributed to the abundance of processed food. The US government has spent $17 billion dollars since 1999 subsidizing corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils, additives that are used almost exclusively by large corporations to make junk food.

This is a distorted system. The US is spending billions of dollars on crop subsidies every year yet more people are getting a less nutritious, less healthy diet; more and more food is being produced cheaper and cheaper yet more and more Americans are going hungry. The incentives of the food industry must be questioned.In 2011 the food industry lobby group persuaded Congress to pass a bill which classified ketch-up as a vegetable so that it can be sold at school lunches instead of green salad. Instead of providing people with fresh and healthy diet, ‘food companies’ such as Pepsi Co., Kraft or General Mills are stuffing customers with junk full of salt, fat and sugar (such as Pepsi’s “Snackified” drinks). As food expert Raj Patel put it, “we've created a system that is geared toward keeping overall food prices low but does little to support healthy, high-quality food”. As the largest food exporter of the world and a country that is so enthusiastic about lecturing others on human right issues, 48 million food-insecure citizens is a disgrace.

Though the United States may be the most extreme example, it is not the only country dealing with the proliferation of processed food. China is expected to surpass the US as the world’s largest consumer of processed food in 2015, and 23 percent of Chinese boys and 14 percent of girls are currently overweight or obese. In India, 37 percent of the total population lives under the US$ 1.25 poverty line, but the food processing industry has been growing at 6.3 percent annually since 2011, far faster than the food production sector as a whole. This means that Indians are consuming an ever higher proportion of processed food in their diet.

In developing countries, unlike the US, it is far more rare for the hungry to be simultaneously obese. However it is becoming increasingly true all over the world that poorer people are able to access food, just not the kind of food they need for a healthy life. With healthy food prices rising and processed foods remaining relatively cheap, the poor will inevitably be pushed in to the trap of eating junk and, sadly, getting fat before getting rich rather than after.

Governments and world leaders must get their act together and change the system that makes people dependent on processed junk food. Providing access to fresh agricultural produce and real food is an international necessity, especially since by 2050 the world will have to feed 9 billion mouths, but not with Coke or Big Macs.