The critical links between food security and social justice
When evaluating the relative security of a nation, it is only natural to focus upon 'showier' aspects of security, such as the need to ensure that a nation's borders are protected from a military onslaught or terrorist attack. However, security must be conceptualized in a broader fashion to also include socio-economic equality and the right to feel safe and secure in one's person. The issue of food security and food distribution is an area of increasing concern in America and in the world at large. Food security affects the health of the nation and also the relative contentment of people and their belief in the ability to secure the American dream of social mobility. General issues of community health and hygiene are intimately related to food security, given that the concerns about access to safe foods and nutritious foods have become more acute in recent years. On an international level, questions about adequate food distribution and food costs remain rife.
Food insecurity and economic inequality are both growing at an alarming rate. According to the USDA, "food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life [including] the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods [and] assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies)" (Food security in the U.S., 2014, USDA). The stress upon nutritionally adequate foods is essential. Quite often people focus solely upon calories as evidence of food security but the ability to purchase enough protein and produce must be evaluated as well as the mere fact a household has calories on hand. Possessing cheap, sugary carbohydrates in abundance is not evidence of 'food security.' Issues of access to healthy foods and being able to afford what are often more expensive alternatives to fast foods and prepared foods must be addressed within the context of the 'food security' problem. For example, a recent study found that "in rural Mississippi, adults living in 'food desert' counties (defined as those lacking large supermarkets) are 23% less likely to consume the recommended fruits and vegetables than those in counties that are not food deserts" (Treuhaft & Karpyn 2014:8). Poverty and poorer food quality are intertwined.
When discussing public policy, food insecurity must be differentiated from hunger because often the absence of hunger is assumed to be analogous to having 'enough to eat.' But the concept of hunger does not take into consideration the concept of food adequacy. Hunger "should refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation" (Williamson 2006). However, 11% of American households were "categorized into 'food insecurity without hunger,' meaning people who ate, though sometimes not well versus 'food insecurity with hunger,' for those who sometimes had no food" (Williamson 2006). In fact, someone with low food insecurity may have food but it may be the kinds of food that give rise to chronic illnesses, such as fast food and sugary foods. This health challenge ultimately results in a less healthy population even though it may not be as visible as emaciation.
In the U.S., the poor tend to be heavier because of a lack of access to healthy food, not thinner, as the cycle of privation when money is scarce and overeating inexpensive food when food is present continues generates overeating as well as a reliance upon less healthy foods. Furthermore, "five studies found that proximity to supermarkets correspond with a lower body mass index (BMI) or rates of obesity, diabetes, or diet-related death among adults" (Treuhaft & Karpyn 2014:2). In many inner city or rural communities, there is no ready access to a wide variety of healthy foods -- combined with inadequate cooking facilities in living quarters and a culture which condones the consumption of fast foods, the effects upon BMI can be toxic.
However, even in regards to its rating scale of food security, the USDA tends to prioritize remedying the absence of any food at all. Food quality is secondary. "Households having 'very low food security' must report that "adults ate less than they felt they should" and "adults cut the size of meals or skipped meals and did so in 3 or more months" (Food security in the U.S., 2014, USDA). Even when interviewing people about the presence of food in the home, the questions relating to food quality was phrased to simply ask if the person eats a 'balanced' diet, leaving the determinant of what constitutes 'balance' up to the person. Relying upon households themselves to determine if they have access to healthy foods can be problematic, given that low-income people may have trouble determining a normal amount of food and a healthy, balanced diet, given they have not been able to adhere to such a diet for so long, if ever in their lives.
Of course, hunger and food insecurity is not limited to the United States. "On a global level as well, food insecurity can be a serious issue. When access to food is inadequate, this can lead to a destabilized political situation and give rise to social unrest. "Political turmoil, social unrest, civil war and terrorism could all be on the table unless the world boosts its food production by 60% come mid-century, the UN's main hunger fighting agency has warned. The world's population is expected to hit 9 billion people by 2050, which, coupled with the higher caloric intake of increasingly wealthy people, is likely to drastically increase food demand over the coming decades" (UN warns world must produce 60% more food by 2050 to avoid mass unrest, 2014, FT). Thus, the food insecurity problem is one of access and supply as well as of cost on a 'macro' level. "Exacerbating this problem is a convergence in diets worldwide, with reliance on an ever smaller group of crops leaving global food supplies increasingly vulnerable to inflationary pressure, insects and disease" (UN warns world must produce 60% more food by 2050 to avoid mass unrest, 2014, FT). Food can also be used as a weapon in social conflicts -- warring parties may try to deprive the other side of access to food. Social unrest may be generated if there is inadequate access to food.
But regardless of where one lives in the world, access to high-quality food is essential to live a long and healthy life. "Diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins can help us maintain a healthy weight and avoid chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease" (Access to healthy affordable food, 2014, Public Health Law Center). In the developing world, access to food itself may be limited, along with clean water while in the developed world even if food is present and some forms of food assistance, "for many people, eating a healthier diet is not as simple as choosing to eat healthier foods. Some neighborhoods do not have grocery stores that sell healthy foods and sometimes healthy foods are too expensive for people to buy" (Access to healthy affordable food, 2014, Public Health Law Center).
Poorer persons often have limited access to transportation that prevents them from traveling to other areas and limited time due to balancing multiple jobs. When people do not have access to healthy foods in an easy fashion, they tend not to even think of making such purchases. "In Detroit and New Haven, produce quality is lower in low-income communities of color compared to more affluent or racially mixed neighborhoods. In Albany, New York, 80% of nonwhite residents cannot find…