The Greater Chicago Food Depository uses volunteers to do the work of more than 40 full-time employees. (Photography by Eric Allix Rogers, AB’05, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nutrition education

A Center for International Studies talk tackles hunger in the United States.

Obesity may get more media attention, but food insecurity is the most important public-health issue related to nutrition, said University of Illinois agricultural economist Craig Gunderson at an April 30 Swift Hall talk. Generally, the more than 50 million food-insecure families in the United States, Gunderson explained, don’t know where they will get their next meal.

The second lecture in the Center for International Studies series on Food (In)Security: Access, Equity, Frameworks focused on hunger and nutrition in the United States, featuring panelists Gunderson and Sophie Milam, senior policy counsel at Feeding America, which manages a network of 200 food banks around the country.

In Chicago alone, 21 percent of residents are food insecure, based on measures of food availability, access, and use—whether they’re getting enough nutrition. Said Gunderson, “Children are going to bed hungry.”

The central goal of the US Department of Agriculture is to alleviate food insecurity, he said, and its largest food and nutrition assistance program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. (In Illinois, SNAP is known as Link.) Whether someone is eligible for SNAP is determined by state—although the states do not make it easy. “There’s more scrutiny on SNAP,” Gunderson said, “than the IRS puts on tax returns.” Milam agreed: “There’s so much worry that people might get $5 extra.”

But not all food-insecure families are eligible for SNAP—income is not necessarily an indicator of food insecurity, Gunderson said, but it is key for eligibility. And because of the stigma and how difficult it is to apply, some food-insecure people and families choose not to participate. That’s where groups like Milam’s Feeding America come in, serving food banks that are “at the hub of food insecurity,” she said. Often, SNAP’s benefit levels aren’t high enough—it comes out to about $1.50 per person per meal, on average. Food banks “fill the gaps unmet by SNAP.”

For those who do participate in SNAP, however, research suggests that the program is “unambiguously” successful in helping to alleviate food insecurity, said Gunderson. The program, Milam added, is “timely, targeted, and temporary.” When a family’s financial situation stabilizes, they are transitioned off.

Some audience members weren’t completely convinced that food-access programs (SNAP is only one of 15 federal nutrition-assistance programs run out of the USDA) were working as well as Gunderson thought they were. One woman, a teacher in a South Side school, expressed concern: just because a school offers fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy meals doesn’t mean that students will eat them. Another was worried that SNAP wasn’t being applied correctly—that people were selling or exchanging their food stamps.

In some scenarios, the panelists said, such as when food credits were being sold on the black market, the exchange is not a good thing. But when, for example, a man used SNAP to buy hot dogs and buns and become a street vendor, Milam said, what’s wrong with that? It’s the “entrepreneurial spirit.”