Nate Feltman: We must address root causes of food insecurity

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As we join with family and friends this Thanksgiving and holiday season and prepare more food than we can possibly consume, it is important to remember that many of our fellow citizens are not so fortunate.

Today, one in seven Americans (44 million) live in food-insecure households, including one in five children (15 million). The number of food-insecure households and children has increased 30% and 40%, respectively, over the last year—the largest increase measured since the 2008 financial crisis. Being food-insecure means a person’s access to food is limited by a lack of money or other resources.

To put this into perspective locally, Gleaners, Indiana’s largest food bank, distributed an all-time record 48 million meals throughout its 21-county service area this fiscal year, a 17% increase over last year and an 88% increase over the year before the pandemic. Not only are more Hoosiers hungry, but the cost of food has increased substantially. According to Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana President and CEO Fred Glass, Gleaners’ food-acquisition costs have more than doubled over the last year, rising from $3 million to more than $6 million. Gleaners is projecting that number will rise to nearly $8 million next year.

At this year’s Hunger & Health event, hosted by IBJ Media and Gleaners last month, Glass explained that the root of food insecurity is poverty. As a result, according to Glass, Gleaners is not in the charitable-food business but rather the poverty-alleviation business—armed with food. In other words, Gleaners is helping sustain those who need assistance while they work with their partners to attack hunger’s cause—poverty.

Surprisingly, two-thirds of food-insecure households in Marion County have at least one employed adult. According to Fred Payne, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana, 42% of households in Marion County are classified as having asset-limited income but employed individuals, or ALICE. These are individuals who are working but do not make enough money to consistently provide nutritious meals for their families.

According to Payne, too many Hoosiers fall into the ALICE camp and are caught in a Catch-22. If they make too much money, they become ineligible for certain benefits, making them poorer even though they received a raise. This Catch-22 prevents workers from advancing in their careers and hurts productivity. Unhealthy and hungry employees are more likely to be absent and unable to perform at their best. According to one study, the cost of food insecurity for a manufacturing company with 2,500 employees is over $2.3 million annually, due to absenteeism and “presenteeism.”

Food insecurity also significantly impacts the health of Hoosiers, as well as the overall costs of health care in Indiana. According to the USDA, poor nutrition is a leading cause of illness in the United States, associated with more than half a million deaths each year. Individuals who are food-insecure lead less healthy lives and have a shorter life expectancy. And, according to Feeding America, food insecurity adds $1.8 billion to health care costs in Indiana.

This holiday season, consider volunteering or contributing to an organization that is working to help those who need a helping hand and a bridge to food and economic security. And advocate for and support programs that will provide more affordable child care, housing and education options for Hoosiers in order to help address the roots of food insecurity.•

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Feltman is publisher of IBJ and CEO of IBJ Media. Send comments to nfeltman@ibj.com.

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