Answering Your Questions About Food Insecurity

Volunteer holding a box of fresh produce including tomatoes, carrots, apples and strawberries.

Volunteer holding a box of fresh produce including tomatoes, carrots, apples and strawberries.

Feeding America West Michigan exists to gather and distribute food to relieve hunger and increase food security in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Currently, 1 in 8 of our neighbors is at risk for hunger; that risk means they are food insecure. To learn more about what food insecurity looks like, check out the Q&A below.

What is food insecurity?

The definition of food insecurity according to the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. This can be a temporary situation for a family or can last a long time.

Why does food insecurity exist?

The causes of food insecurity are complex. Some of the causes of food insecurity include:

  • Poverty, unemployment, or low income
  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Chronic health conditions or lack of access to healthcare
  • System failure: When parts of Michigan’s food system (government, farmers, consumers, etc.) are off balance, resulting in food not getting to people how it should
  • Lack of access to nutritious food choices

What are the effects of food insecurity?

Food insecurity can impact people in many different ways, depending on one’s circumstances. Listed below are a few examples of the effects of food insecurity:

  • Food insecurity can cause serious health issues when people have to choose between spending money on food, medicine or healthcare
  • Food insecurity can make it more difficult for a child to learn and grow
  • Food insecurity can lead to difficult decisions like choosing between food and rent, bills, and transportation, which can cause essential living resources to be limited.

There is a vast amount of research that can be read to gain a better understanding of the causes and effects of food insecurity. Check out this website to read the most up-to-date information on what food insecurity looks like for so many in the United States.

Is there really a hunger crisis in the U.S.? 

Yes. Hunger looks different in the U.S. than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We use the term “hunger” because it’s easily understood—we all know what it’s like to feel hungry—but what we are usually referring to is “food insecurity.” Someone who is food insecure can’t always access or afford enough food to live a healthy, active life. As such, not everyone who is food insecure is chronically hungry.

Around the world, there are places where people have no food and no way to get any for days on end. Usually, food-insecure Michiganders can access or afford some food or even enough calories throughout the month, but need to make trade-offs or use coping mechanisms in order to do so. Neighbors may skip medications, defer loans or buy cheaper—and often less nourishing—food in order to feed their families. They may cope by using programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), receiving help from friends and family or receiving food from a food pantry or meal program.

That’s why it’s helpful to think of food security as a sliding scale. Marginal food security is when someone can access and afford the food they need right now, but only just barely. These neighbors may still rely on consistent access to resources like SNAP or even a food pantry or meal program in order to eat. Low food security is when someone is struggling to be able to access and afford food—especially food that is nutritious or desirable. However, they may be able to fill their plates when using coping mechanisms like those described above. They may miss only a few meals a month, if any. Very low food security, in contrast, is when someone is forced to skip many meals each month. Only a small percentage of people in our service area experience very low food security. Supporting food banks like Feeding America West Michigan and advocating for strong hunger-relief programs like SNAP helps keep very low food security at bay in our community—but there’s still more work to be done if we want to end hunger for good.

Who does the food bank’s hunger-relief network serve?  

Our hunger-relief network serves people from all walks of life including disabled veterans, grandparents raising grandchildren, families experiencing unemployment, children facing summer hunger, neighbors without homes, low-income workers and many others. You can meet some of these neighbors through stories on our blog to learn about the need in our area.

Does having a job prevent food insecurity? 

No. As of 2019, nationally, 51% of food-insecure households had at least one family member working full-time, with 10% working part-time, 15% retired and 16% not working because of a disability. This means that 61% hold jobs that simply don’t pay enough to make ends meet, or that pay just enough to live paycheck to paycheck. In the latter situation, one unexpected expense can rob them of their self-sufficiency.

Do people in need of food care about nutritious options? 

Yes! A survey of Kent County residents asked participants of all ages and incomes how much they would enjoy a buffet full of only fresh fruit or vegetables. There was no correlation between income and a participant’s desire for fruits and vegetables. Even at the lowest income bracket, 80% said they would enjoy a fruit buffet and 74% a vegetable buffet “a whole lot” or “quite a bit.” Similarly, in 2020, 90% of surveyed Mobile Pantry clients in our service area said they were interested in eating more fruits and vegetables.

Do people who access charitable food always need help?

Americans rarely experience chronic hunger, but rather experience bouts of it. This means our clients are constantly changing as people fall in or out of need. A USDA study found that 51% of families who experienced food insecurity within a period of 5 years were only food insecure during 1 of those years. Only 6% of families surveyed experienced food insecurity in all 5 years.

Is hunger most frequently found in cities?

While it’s true that inner-city residents face unique challenges when it comes to accessing and affording enough healthy food, as a whole, in Feeding America West Michigan’s service area, the seven urban counties we serve have lower food insecurity rates than the 33 rural counties we serve—11.3% vs. 13.3%. Over the last 40 years, the economies of rural communities have shifted dramatically. As industrial jobs have disappeared, many businesses have closed and young people have left in search of work. Elderly neighbors and others who stay behind face increasing challenges such as higher-priced food, especially fresh food, and distance from grocery stores and other resources. Ironically, rural communities are the backbone of our food system and home to most of our country’s farms. Neighbors from these communities should not struggle to put food on their own families’ plates.

If you want to learn more about what food insecurity looks like in your area, check out Map the Meal Gap.

Written by Content Specialist Kelly Reitsma