HUNGER IN IOWA
WHAT IS FOOD INSECURITY?
Iowa has the most fertile soil in the world. Often referred to as ‘black gold,’ this fertile soil should ensure that there is not a hungry man, woman, or child in the state. Iowa farmers boast about our duty to feed the world. What about our duty to feed ourselves? Iowa is consistently ranked first in corn, soybean, pork, egg production and the second highest food producing state, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Somehow, within our fertile landscape, we have forgotten how to feed our own citizens. Data compiled by Feeding America reveals that nearly 376,000 people are struggling with hunger in Iowa, 122,000 of whom are children. That translates to one in eight adults and one in six children struggling with hunger.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses this definition for food insecurity: “Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (i.e., without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies).“
IMPACT OF FOOD INSECURITY
For a household that struggles with ‘food insecurity,’ the reasons are simple – there is simply not enough money in the household to ensure everyone in the household has access to a healthy diet. The impact can be significant, particularly for children. According to the American Psychological Association, household food insecurity “has insidious effects on the health and development of young children, including increased hospitalizations, poor health, iron deficiency, developmental risk and behavior problems, primarily aggression, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder. These concerns early in life increase children’s risk of poor school readiness, poor school performance and subsequent health disparities…”
How can that happen when we stand on the best agricultural soil in the world? A number of factors converge to make ‘food insecurity’ a complex problem.
A 2013 study by researchers at The Harvard School of Public Health estimates that a healthy diet costs $1.50/day or $550/year more per person than an unhealthy one. “For many low-income families, this additional cost represents a genuine barrier to healthier eating,” the authors concluded. The research also suggests that unhealthy diets may cost less because US food policy supports the production of “inexpensive, high volume” commodities, which has led to “a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.”
As a result of this global food network, Iowa imports more than 90 percent of its food, according to a study by The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Imported food has additional direct and indirect costs including fuel, transportation, taxes and greenhouse gas emissions. The Leopold Center study also estimates that the average fresh produce item Iowans purchase traveled nearly 1,500 miles on its trip to a grocery store shelf. On average, produce purchased at a local farmers market travels only 44 miles. A transportation-based food system is an insecure food system.
The federal minimum wage was last raised to $7.25/hour in 2009. Since then the cost of living has increased by nearly 12%. As of January 2018, there were 29 states with a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage. Unfortunately, Iowa is not among these states. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the federal minimum wage would be $11.62/hour, had it kept pace with the wage increases of production and non-supervisory workers. Had the federal minimum wage grown at the same rate as American productivity, the federal minimum wage would now be $19.33/hour.
LARGER & FEWER FARMERS
A century ago, 98% of Americans were involved in farming in some way. Today it’s only 2%. The USDA Census of Agriculture reveals that a smaller number of larger farm operations produce the vast majority of the nation’s food. Large farms with over $1 million in sales account for 4% of all farms, but 66% of all sales. That’s up substantially from 1% of all farms and 50% of all sales a decade ago. The rising costs of farmland, equipment, seeds and supplies require a large investment that is simply out of reach for a beginning farmer. There are encouraging signs, however. The USDA Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farmers under 35 years old is actually increasing for only the second time in the last century. It won’t replace the number of farmers that are aging out but many of these new farmers are contributing to the growth of urban farming and grow produce for human consumption.
The current administration’s aggressive stance on illegal immigration is a major threat to the nation’s agricultural industry. The crackdown is depriving farm operations of the labor it needs to plant, grow and harvest the crops that feed the nation. Without it, an increasing amount of fresh produce will rot in the fields. The United Fresh Produce Association estimates that the agricultural industry relies on a workforce of 1.5 to 2 million farmworkers. The Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that 46% of this workforce is undocumented. Other studies estimate it’s as high as 75%. Americans don’t want to do those jobs and the system for filling these jobs with authorized immigrants is failing. Farmers across the country are calling for long-overdue reform to the current guest worker visa program that would create flexibility and provide stability in the agricultural workforce.
LACK OF CROP DIVERSITY
Farms comprise 92% of Iowa’s land. Of Iowa’s 36 million acres of land, 30 million are dedicated to agriculture, the USDA Census of Agriculture estimates that more than 47,000 Iowa farms produced corn and 41,000 produced soybeans. These two crops were collectively grown on 23,000,000 acres. By comparison, 962 farms produced vegetables on just 7,700 acres, and even fewer farms produced fruits. The USDA estimates that over 70% of the soybeans grown in the United States are used for animal feed and alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Iowa Corn Growers Association reports that only 1% of corn planted in the United States is sweet corn. The remaining 99% of corn grown in Iowa is known as “field corn.” It is primarily used for livestock feed, ethanol production and manufactured goods including corn cereal, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup.
Food waste in America is a huge problem. Food waste occurs at every level of the food supply chain. Farms, food manufacturers, restaurants, schools, supermarkets and consumers share responsibility for the disposal of an enormous amount of fresh food. According to Iowa Waste Reduction Center, 40% of food in the United States goes to waste. That’s approximately 20 pounds of food per person every month. The USDA estimates that food waste is also the single largest component of the nation’s municipal landfills. There are many reasons for food waste. Some produce is never harvested due to diminishing financial returns, labor shortages or because it does not meet strict cosmetic standards. Restaurants often prepare more food than they sell. Grocery stores want to stock their shelves with aesthetically pleasing food and pull food off the shelf at the first sign of staleness. Consumers also purchase more food than they can eat. Dan Nickey, Associate Director of the Iowa Waste Reduction Center says, “Part of the problem is that consumers can afford to waste.” “It’s so cheap to buy food we just look at it as a given, that it will always be there — ‘I can go buy more tomorrow,'” Nickey says.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Urban farming is a great way to combat ‘food insecurity.’ It’s not a new idea. In fact, urban farming has been around for centuries. The demand for locally-grown fresh produce is driving Americans to grow food like never before. In communities across the nation, urban farmers and everyday citizens are mounting a challenge to the way the nation grows and distributes its food. From those growing food in backyards and community gardens to organizations, like Feed Iowa First, we must work together to ensure all Iowans have access to healthy food, and in turn on reducing our reliance on the global food supply chain.
Feed Iowa First partners with schools, faith organizations, community agencies and businesses of all sizes, and puts the soil to work in open spaces to grow fresh produce. That produce is tended to, harvested and distributed by a team of dedicated hard-working volunteers that enables Feed Iowa First to supply fresh produce to food pantries in Linn County.