A Partial Explanation for Spreading Food Insecurity

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:

Click for larger more legible image.

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.

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11 responses to “A Partial Explanation for Spreading Food Insecurity”

  1. larryg Avatar

    just got back from packing bags for the food pantry next week. The food comes from the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank whose transparency and accountability will warm the cockles of Jim Bacon’s heart .. I hope…


    I’d give the link to the Food Bank itself but Bacon’s Blog is lame as heck when it comes to more than one link… sigh…..

    The Food Bank is magical. It’s a mixture of volunteer citizens, paid workers, govt help and most of all corporate help because a lot of the food comes from the food stores when they share things that are not selling as fast as hoped and approaching the sell date – and they get to write it off on their taxes and the Food Bank manages to employ a few people by selling the donated food for something like 17 cents a pound which most area churches can fairly easily raise the funds to buy enough food to distribute to their geographic area.

    My only complaint is that I wish there were a regional clearinghouse so that people could not double or triple dip… so that more people could be served. Right now.. most church pantry’s have a cut-off list…

    I asked Reed to name his favorite anti-poverty programs. This is one of mine.. it don’t get rid of poverty… but it does put a bit of a safety net in place to keep them from falling further.

    another link.. if you GOOGLE: ” Non-Government, Non-Profit Organizations” USDA – you’ll see the USDA (the govt) involved in helping to coordinate and support a plethora of non-govt programs…which I consider a good thing to reduce redundancy and extend limited resources cost-efficiently.

    One more: “Food for Life”.. google it and you might be surprised who runs it.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Three points:

    1. If you ask the people working at a food bank whether food insecurity is increasing or decreasing you are likely to hear “increasing”. Any other answer would intimate that perhaps donations to the organization are less necessary than they were in the past. I am sure the people are honest. But sub-consciously they feel the pain every day and I am sure it seems to be increasing.

    2. The overall downward trend from the Bloomberg chart ended in about 2007. When people get used to things being relatively cheaper every year and then the trend reverses it will raise insecurity.

    3. A relatively sharp upturn has happened since 2010 or so. This very recent reversal probably also increases insecurity.

    The chart demonstrating the percentage of income spent on food by quintile is of only slight value. The problem is only seeing the endpoints (1984 and 2011). If the percentage of income spent on food fell for the lowest 20% from 1984 through 2007 and then reversed, food insecurity would increase. Given that’s what happened in the overall graph, I suspect this is what may be happening with the bottom 20%.

  3. larryg Avatar

    there are several datapoints.. like SNAP and free/reduced lunches to more accurately calibrate the problem.

    I only work at one place but it serves about 100 families and it is but one of 8 – in one county. I also know from volunteer tax activities that chronic unemployment of those who have only a high school education is very high.

    there is a lot of competition for low end jobs these days. You actually have degreed college graduates elbowing 50-yr old displaced workers and the high school graduates just get squashed.

    one thing about this country these days. If you are on the edge of poverty, it does not inhibit you at all from having kids … and the whole family then becomes “insecure” and subject to govt and NGO programs to “help”.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    Food insecurity? Are you kidding me? Food must be cheap in the free food banks otherwise there wouldn’t be a record 40 million people on food stamps. What’s that? The food is free so they don’t need a food card? Then why all the food cards? There must be something else going on here, let’s see.

    Out here in the real world prices are going through the roof. Don’t believe me. Take something simple like a can of soup. Before this fiscal mess started, the regular cost was around a buck a can. Today I saw the same soup on sale at Walmart for $1.99, compared to another food store’s regular $2.70. But the politicians don’t count food as inflationary so those prices aren’t really draining your wallet are they? BTW, If you want, you can still get that same can for a dollar today, including a free lesson with directly correlated evidence of why Walmart’s sales are going down while Dollar Tree’s is skyrocketing. But then that brings us full circle back to contemplating food stamps, insecurity, baseless babble from Bloomberg, and a clueless Thompson adrift in The Atlantic.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      If inflation was measured today with the same calculation used in 1980, today’s rate would be approximately 10% per year. Moreover, the fear of deflation which justified the massive early quantitative easings was never even a reasonable possibility using the 1980 method of calculation.

      Unemployment has also been re-jiggered to favor the belief that things are better than they really are.

      Our government is lying to us, plain and simple.


  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    The entire cost of my college degree was justified by this one insight from my Econ 101 prof: Whenever the government subsidizes something, you get more of it. Period. End of story. Whether it is poverty, food insecurity, home ownership, charitable contribuitons, war — test the theory and find an example where it fails.

  6. larryg Avatar

    hmmm… does that explain the earned income tax credit for low wage parents of kids?

    we want more kids from low income parents?


  7. Breckinridge Avatar

    Perhaps. But the EITC is actually intended to subsidize and encourage work and I think it is general recongized that it makes a difference. It certainly is more successful than the liberal model of 99 weeks of unemployment, which has been spectaularly successful in creating unemployment.

    The old model welfare programs, paying marginally higher benefits per child and denying benefits to married parents, created three generations of impoverishment. That leading conservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan figured that one out fifty years ago and we didn’t fix it until Clinton was president, and the liberal are still fuming.

    1. I suspect that Breckinridge is right about this — give people free food, and some will spend their own money on something other than food. In other words, the supply of free/subsidized food creates its own demand. But that’s just a hypothesis. In order to demonstrate the effect, you have to provide evidence that millions of Americans are changing their behavior, spending less of their own money on food and taking more food. And I don’t know how you do that.

      1. you run pilot programs.. right? here’s the deal. We should not argue about ideology.. we should seek answers and not let the process of seeking answers be inhibited because we are afraid it will violate conventional orthodoxy. Both sides…

        sometimes it seems that we really don’t want to know answers if we fear they will undo our own beliefs… instead we gravitate toward things that …..confirm our biases…

        it’s almost as if we want the culture war to go on…

  8. EITC incentivizes single parents with kids – right?

    I don’t think liberals “fume” over EITC – they just think it doesn’t do much different than prior programs if in the end – you still end up with single parents having kids they cannot afford AND STILL in addition to the EITC, they get unemployment, SNAP, reduced/free lunches and MedicAid?

    Are not these other programs just as much “welfare” as before”

    how is that better if we still have the same basic problem but just different programs to respond to it?

    Doesn’t the GOP want to end or limit further most of these programs right now?

    Are not these folks the “takers” and “parasites” who pay no tax, that we hear about from the Conservatives these days?

    Sometimes I think many live in an ideological make-believe world of what they want to believe rather than the realities – which in this case are easily known. Both sides..BTW.

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