HICKS: Nutritional poverty plagues land of plenty

November 21, 2009

Like many Americans, this coming week will offer me the opportunity for a feast. Because my family is in different states, we’ll get to have at least two Thanksgiving meals on different days.

I especially like this arrangement because there is a hint of culinary competition from which my palate benefits enormously. The situation demands I try every dish. Those gastronomic pitfalls will be compounded by a church brunch (we Methodists are known for our faith and casseroles). The opportunity for this excess set me to thinking about what we spend on foodstuffs and how this compares to our forebears.

The notion of a feast is present in all cultures. The chance for a truly special meal, abundant in quantity and selection, appears in sacred writings of all religions of which I know and in every nation I have been. I wonder though, now, in our world of plenty, whether it might be getting a bit too easy for us to forget the root of want that made the feast so important.

For much of human history, obtaining sufficient calories to survive was a costly struggle. Certainly, the early Pilgrims struggled to provide sustenance, as did the Native Americans who met them on these shores. Challenges persisted until recent times. Here in Indiana, the white-tailed deer was hunted to extinction by the early 1890s (though it was reintroduced in the 1930s, with hunting resuming after World War II).

As recently as the Roaring ’20s, a quarter of the average American’s income was spent on food. This meant that even a modest interruption of income could lead to real hunger. In the 1920s, about 20 percent of the food consumed in the country was produced at home. What we now call heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and other luxury items were a staple of home-produced foods. Today, about one-half of 1 percent of total food is produced at home.

Across a significant part of the world, foodstuffs account for a major share of total income. In much of what we call the developing world, half of earnings are devoted to answering the demands of the stomach.

In the United States today, expenditures on food account for less than 10 percent of income. Even among our poorest—those who receive food stamps—expenditures on food items make up less than 25 percent of income.

Ironically, in America, the world’s richest country, the problem of hunger is exactly reversed. Obesity, not hunger, is the mark of poverty. In the nation’s poorest states, rates of obesity top 30 percent and, among the poorest demographic group, the obesity rate tops 50 percent. We have an abundance of food, but a surfeit of nutritional knowledge.

On Thanksgiving, we have much to be grateful for. But our problems also grow stickier. It is not sufficient merely to provide sustenance; we need to teach folks how and what to eat. This is a happier problem than we faced in the past, but like most problems related to poverty, education is the answer.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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