THE DETAILS: Every day, 1 billion people around the world—15 percent of the world's population—go hungry, and 18,000 children die each day from hunger. But hunger in the United States is also dire. Eleven percent of the U.S. population and 17 percent of all American children live in households considered food-insecure, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as "limited or uncertain access to adequate food." Food insecurity is particularly prevalent in households of single women with children, which make up 30 percent of all the food-insecure. Hunger falls into the category of "very low food security," which includes 4 percent of the population and, again, is highest in households of single women with children.
All of this occurs in a country where 32 percent of all adults and 15 percent of children under 11 years old are overweight or obese. Ironically, food insecurity and obesity may go hand in hand. The nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, which works to improve public policies related to hunger, says that food insecurity also encompasses people who skip meals or cut back on the quality or quantity of food they purchase at the stores—essentially, people who live in "food deserts" and have to opt for cheap, processed foods over more expensive, healthier fresh produce. There aren't any statistics on the number of people considered "food-insecure" who are also obese, but all 10 states with the highest rates of food insecurity—Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Maine, South Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri—also have obesity prevalence rates greater than 25 percent, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To add a third problem to the combined dilemmas of hunger and obesity, Americans throw away a lot of produce because it goes bad. That produce, as it decays in landfills, emits methane, a global-warming gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
WHAT IT MEANS: Hunger and food insecurity are big problems. But everyone can pitch in and help solve them. Here are some ways to do that:
• Share your harvest. A new website called AmpleHarvest.org, launched in May 2009, links backyard gardeners to local food pantries that are desperate for your extra summer tomatoes and winter squash. "The number of the food-insecure in this country is about equal to the populations of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York combined," says the site's founder, Gary Oppenheimer. "This allows people to help their neighbors by reaching into their backyards rather than their back pockets. We can help solve the problem of hunger in America without spending any money." And everyone deserves fresh fruit and vegetables, not the canned stuff that usually has added sugar or salt and could be contaminated with bisphenol A. The site just registered its one thousandth food pantry, and backyard gardeners can log on to find local food banks in their area.
• Make a targeted donation. One problem facing food banks today, says Oppenheimer, is that well-meaning citizens often donate food that the pantries don't need, for instance, gifts of baby food to a food bank that serves a population of mostly older adults, or pork and beans given to a pantry visited most often by orthodox Jews or Muslims. Some of the food pantries on his site have started listing items they do need, whether it's a particular type of food or something more basic, such as toiletry items.
• Buy organic. There are at least a dozen reasons to buy organic food, and here's one more: A U.N. study of East African farms found that food production in some cases doubled when farmers switched from chemical to organic growing methods. The report’s authors argued that organic farming could feed millions more and boost food security in Africa; just imagine what it could do to solve hunger in the United States. Every time you purchase food grown with organic methods, you're voting with your dollar and strengthening the organic marketplace.
• Listen to your mother. You really should clean your plate because there really are starving children who can't get food! The USDA estimates that retailers, restaurants, and regular people waste about a pound of food per person per day. That's 122 pounds of food per month for a family of four, and 100 billion pounds of food every year, enough to totally eliminate hunger, says Ample Harvest. Okay, finishing everything on your plate won't directly translate into more food for the hungry. But not wasting food means you can stretch your food budget farther, and use some of the money you save as a donation to a food bank.