January 18, 2011

Number Crunching & Food Security 101

This post is the first in a series from Bread for the City intern Allison Burket exploring the basics of food, hunger, and politics in the District.

What’s up with food and hunger in DC? In what ways is DC “food insecure”?

First, some figures. According to the USDA’s analysis, over one in eight families in DC classifies as “food insecure,” of not having sufficient access to nutritious food over the course of a year. Of all households in DC with children, 40.6 percent have had times when funds were not sufficient to put food on the table. The Capital Area Food Bank, which serves over 478,100 local residents, released its own comprehensive profile of hunger in DC in 2010. They find that 1 in 3 DC residents is at risk of or experiencing hunger. The food bank has seen a 25 percent increase in food clients in recent years.

Economic hard times in the city exacerbate the impact of an industrialized food system in which lower-quality foods are produced on the cheap. Diseases related to diet and lifestyle are at an all-time high across the country. In DC, where the obesity rate is 22.2% and levels of residents with hypertension reach beyond 28%, these challenges are disproportionately felt in low-income communities and communities of color. For example, Ward 8, which is 92% Black or African American, has a median income of around $25,000 and an obesity rate of 41.9%. This can be compared to Ward 3’s 84% white population with median income of $72,000 and 11.7% obesity rate. (For more on obesity in DC, see the report from the DC Department of Health.)

Communities that are already struggling to afford fresh and nutritious food might not be able to find these staples in their own neighborhoods. So-called “food deserts” result from policies and development practices that have left many lower-income neighborhoods without access to full-service grocery stores or alternative sources of fresh food. DC Hunger Solutions has led the research on the “grocery gap” phenomenon in a 2010 report that identifies the areas in the city, particularly Wards 7 and 8, most impacted by uneven distribution of full-service grocery stores and draws connections to issues of unemployment, obesity, and the local economy. The DC government has launched an effort to combat this phenomenon, though based on experiences with similar initiatives in New York and Pennsylvania, reducing food deserts alone is insufficient to bring down obesity rates.

More than just hunger at a given moment in time, these studies capture the impact of what is increasingly recognized as a broken food system. If recent headlines are any indication, it’s clear that the factors affecting our ability to feed ourselves in a way that is healthy, equitable, and sustainable are complicated and difficult to track, predict, or control: housing and development trends in DC make it difficult for DC residents to access food pantries and federal nutrition programs; battles on the national level over funding for school lunches and for SNAP benefits have been drawn-out and wonky; though farmers and consumer groups across the country have recently been putting up quite a fight, corporate concentration across the food and agriculture sectors continues to result in lower prices for farmers and higher prices for consumers.

So what would it mean to talk about “food security” in DC? According to the standard definition, a community is “food secure” when all residents obtain a “safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” This perspective is useful in that it considers all the factors that influence the availability, cost, and quality of food to area households, but gosh, trying to think about all those factors and how to make them work better for DC can be a little overwhelming.

The good news is that, while there’s a lot of work to be done, there are a lot of folks already doing it. Recent developments at Bread for the City, as well as a range of stellar projects, programs, and legislative victories captured on the DC Food For All blog, lead me to believe that DC can take the power of making healthy, sustainable food choices into its own hands.

Check in next week as I begin to explore the federal nutrition programs serving District residents!

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