by James A. Bacon
Food insecurity is increasing in Virginia. Don’t take my word for it — that’s what the people at Feedmore, which runs Central Virginia’s food bank, tell me. The food bank operation, founded in 1980 to provide emergency food relief to poor Virginians, now addresses a chronic need. The organization has evolved into an industrial-scale food preparation and distribution enterprise that collaborates with some 350 churches, schools, soup kitchens, community gardens and other partners to address food insecurity throughout the Richmond region and Central Virginia.
In a sit-down session with several senior Feedmore officials a couple of weeks ago, I asked a simple question. Food consumes a smaller share of the family budget than ever in American history and the federal government is spending more money than ever on food stamps — not only for more people but more money per recipient. Why is food insecurity increasing?
No one had a definitive answer, but there were some plausible theories. Clearly, food insecurity worsened during the recession, in which millions of Americans lost their jobs. Further, while it is true that food consumes a smaller percentage of the average family budget, it may consume a larger slice for poor households. Remember, income gains have lopsidedly favored the top income quintile over the past three decades. Inflation-adjusted wages for the bottom quintile has remained stagnate over the same period. Thus, it was possible, I was told, that the poorest Americans were actually spending a higher percentage of their budgets on food. If food is consuming a larger share of poor peoples’ budgets, no wonder food insecurity is spreading.
The explanation seemed plausible enough, and there we left it. But today I stumbled across a post by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic Cities blog. Thompson’s jumping-off point is this chart just published in Bloomberg Businessweek:
True, viewed as a whole, Americans are spending a smaller share of their family budgets on food than in the past. But the national average obscures what’s happening to sub-groups. Thompson also presents this chart:
Bottom line: The poor are spending the same share of their limited dollars on food today that they were in 1984. That explains why food insecurity has not eased among the poor.
But food insecurity is increasing. It is more prevalent — not the same — than it was nearly 30 years ago. If we want to explain the phenomenon of growing food insecurity, we need to keep looking. Stagnant incomes and joblessness clearly provide part of the explanation for food insecurity. But something else appears to be going on. What that is, I cannot say. But I will continue digging for answers.