Food Insecurity: The Staggering Numbers

Families line up for blocks to receive food prior to Thanksgiving.

Jenny is a widowed mom with two pre-school children. She has a full-time job which pays $9 an hour at a local business. Rounded up a few pennies, her take-home pay is right at $1300 a month. Her daycare expense is $85 a week per child. She is a homeowner with a $ 425-month house payment. Utilities (electric and water) run another $200 month. Those are just the basics. That doesn’t include the cost of food, clothing, or any extra family activities such as taking in a movie or a night out for pizza. Do the math and see what that looks like for this single mom.

Now, think about your own family of 2, 3, or 4. How much is your grocery bill? How much does it cost to put gas in your car to go to work, pick up kids, and run them to the doctor and other appointments? How much does it cost for incidental repairs to your house – unplugging a toilet, repairing missing shingles on the roof, replacing a broken window? How much is your car insurance? How much does it cost you to clothe your child conservatively, looking for sales and bargains when possible?

Thousands of River Valley workers face a simple mathematical problem every day of their lives – choosing between food and shelter, food and clothing, food and insurance, food and healthcare – the list goes on and on. Oftentimes, food on the table is not the winning decision. This is what we call ‘food insecurity’ – and it happens more times than you can even imagine. The result of food insecurity is despair.

As President Johnson once put it, “our task is to replace despair with opportunity.” To be certain, our task in the River Valley is to work together to turn current despair into future opportunity.

Despair exists. The local poverty rate stands at 27%. Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, estimates that over one-half million Arkansans, or 17.2%, are food insecure. Despite federal programs like SNAP, three out of 10 who struggle to feed their families must rely solely upon charitable responses for help with food. More than 7 out of 10 public school students in Arkansas qualify for free school meals, and for most, those are the most nutritious meals they may receive on any given day.

The need for food assistance is often associated with compromises in housing, personal safety, and healthcare. The median home value in Fort Smith is roughly $115,000 and the median household income is just under $36,000. Only 28% of Fort Smithians make more than $35,000 a year. Homeownership and its upkeep are simply out of the realm for most and the result is an elderly population where one in four have no reliable assets on which to fall back.

It may come as no surprise, then, that 49% of households live in rental property. But even renting a modest two-bedroom apartment is difficult. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the wage required in Arkansas to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment is $13.86 hourly. That translates to roughly $29,000 in annual wages. Far too many have no choice but to rent less than desirable property.

That may partly explain the area’s high levels of assault, burglary, and motor vehicle thefts. The rates for all, while dropping locally, remain at twice the national average. Hunger and financial stress may indeed be its root cause. According to the University of California-Riverside psychologist Elizabeth Davis, “Hunger makes us slightly unhappy, to begin with. Those negative feelings get directed toward that trigger…and result in an overreaction.”

The rising tides of chronic illnesses will only abate when healthier eating habits take hold. Research reported in Frontiers in Public Health concludes that not only do food insecure households lead to a low adherence to a healthy diet, but that diabetes, rheumatic disease, and depression symptoms are independently associated with it. Overall, they found that food-insecure households have a lower Health-related Quality of Life and require increased hospitalizations. Food assistance that nudges families towards making smarter food choices helps improve and sustain positive attitudes, more healthy meal preparations, and more in-home meals.

According to Schooldigger.com, three Fort Smith public elementary schools rank among the top 15% in the state. Within 16 miles of those schools, are four local schools ranking in the bottom 15%. The same pattern follows into the middle schools and to the two high schools. Continuously, the bottom performers have the highest free meal participation rates and highest percentages of minority students.

When disparities between public schools become equalized, learning becomes prioritized. Each child should be given the assurances of fairness, inclusion and social justice throughout their school experience. This includes appreciating school for what it teaches, not merely for the food it provides.

Is it any wonder that 20% of Fort Smithians have less than a high school diploma. The dropout rate far exceeds the national average of 12%. Poverty becomes generational, and incidentally, increasingly female.

Donated foods earmarked for charity pump the local economy. Two million pounds of donated foods that would otherwise be thrown away has no value, but placed into local homes, has a value of $3.4 million. The USDA has determined that such a gift actually has a multiplier effect in the community, in this case, nearing $10 million.

Food assistance hopes to provide everyone with the opportunity of a happy home. In some way, every major holiday is associated with food. A survey in Ideal Home Magazine sought to identify the top factors that make a house into a home. On the fringe of the survey results were some of life’s little luxuries like a comfy sofa, freshly-laundered bed sheets, summer BBQs and a well-stocked refrigerator. The top five factors were: happiness, love, security and safety, laughter, and meals with family and friends.

When people think of home, they often think of the good meals they shared and their best childhood memories. Many children are clearly missing that experience. To realize the River Valley at its best is to envision a place where every family thinks of home as a gathering place to share nutritious meals with family and friends. A family should not have to choose between food or other necessities of life. Food is the one essential that dictates the health of the body and it is part of our social fiber.
And it binds our love and affection for each other.