For most, holidays are filled with friends, gifts, and food.  Emphasis on food.  From sharing treats and snacks to bountiful potlucks and family dinners.  Food is at the center of most celebrations.  But for many, food is a more sensitive subject.  Food insecurity is a very real problem.  Even in the developed country of the United States, some do not know where their next meal will be coming from.

Food insecurity is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as unable to consistently access or afford adequate food.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 17% of Americans live in households that are “food insecure”.  That accounts for more than 50 million people.  Food insecure can be broken down into two different concepts.  Either the family sometimes runs out of money to buy food, or it could mean that sometimes the family runs out of food before they can acquire more money to buy food.

The Food Desert Concept

How exactly does food insecurity happen?  Obviously, poverty is the leading cause, but there are additional factors.  What if you lived in an area that was nowhere near a supermarket or grocery store? That is a real issue for more people than you think.  In fact, a report from the Economic Research Service of the USDA indicated about 2.3 million Americans live more than a mile away from a supermarket AND do not own a car.  Think on that for a moment.  Can you reasonably travel a mile or more with groceries in tow?  For some areas, public transportation can ease the transportation burden; however this may still require several buses or trains to make this round trip with groceries in tow.  This is essential what is called a “food desert,” or geographical area where residents have either limited or no access to healthy food options such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

For those living in a food desert, most of the time there are very expensive or poor options available, such as gas stations, convenient stores, or even liquor stores.  These “convenience” locations are often above market price and tend to offer only processed or junk foods.

Poverty and Hunger

Aside from access to healthy food options, some families cannot afford healthy food options.  For many, hunger is a daily reality due to poverty.  The government measures food insecurity as a “measure of access people have to nutritional food on a regular basis.”  Julio Alonso, the executive director of Hoosier Hills Food Bank, a Food Pantry in Indiana, is not a fan of the use of the phrase food insecurity in its use of a politically correct term for hunger because it has a way of dehumanizing the problem, “but it is probably more accurate when you think about it.”

This food bank, and many others like it have seen an increase in the output of food over the past few years.  For Hoosier Hills Food Bank, this has been an increase of 95 percent at the current amount of 3.1 million pounds.  The sad reality is that the only reason the distribution has stalled this year at 3.1 million pounds is not due to decreased need.  “The only reason that the number is as low as it is, is because of supply and not the demand.  We could still be distributing more food if we had the food to distribute.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

For many, kitchens such as this one help supplement citizens budgets.  For some, eating at a community kitchen is a way to manage their limited income, allowing them to spend their money on medications to keep them in health or rent to keep a roof over their heads.

Food pantries are doing all they can for those that they can reach.  Many try to make holiday meals to raise morale, but the reality is that these food banks are underfunded and often do not have enough food to distribute.  Additionally, many of those who need the service do not have the means to get it.  Fortunately, it is this time of year that many people do consider donating.  While we are enjoying our bountiful feasts, it’s this time of year it is abundantly clear that there are those who are not as fortunate as we may be.

Thinking About Donating?  Here is What Food Pantries Really Need.

Donating food to local food pantries or food banks goes a little further than cleaning out the old cans and boxes out of your cupboard, explains Lisa Uganski, Ottawa County Food Coordinator.  While every little bit helps, some items help better than others.  She suggests that those who chose to donate, choose more healthy options.  “The great thing is that healthier options aren’t any more expensive than the regular varieties in most cases.  Purchasing low-sodium varieties of canned vegetables or fruit packed in 100 percent juice is the same cost, and helps create a healthier meal.”  Often those with health conditions appreciate these foods as healthier options.  “Items like canned fish and canned chicken, as well as vegetarian protein sources, like beans and peanut butter, allow families who are not able to purchase fresh meat, to use substitutions to create a filling meal,” she says.

According to Ottowa County Food, the following food items are the types of food that food pantries really need:

  • “Canned vegetables (no salt added or low sodium)
  • 100% fruit and vegetable juices
  • Canned fruit in 100% juice
  • Dried fruits and vegetables with no added sugar or fat
  • Fresh produce (check to see if the pantry has the capacity to accept this as a donation)
  • 100% whole grain bread or pasta
  • Brown rice or wild rice
  • Whole grain cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber (Cheerios, Shredded Wheat)
  • Oatmeal
  • Canned beans with no salt added
  • Dried beans, peas, and lentils
  • Low-sodium or water packed canned meats and seafood
  • Unsalted nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews)
  • Peanut butter
  • Shelf-stable low-fat dairy products (boxed milk, dry milk, or evaporated milk)
  • Soup with less than 400 mg sodium per serving”

Throughout the whole year, but especially during the holidays, consider what you can do to reduce waste and help the food insecurity issues in your own community.  This could be as simple as adding a few extra items in your cart and dropping it off at the front of the grocery store if yours includes a donation bin, to volunteering at a food bank or kitchen to provide yourself as a community service.  There are many ways to help those in need this season.  Find your own way and share the love through the gift of food this season.