When most people imagine what hunger looks like, they imagine emaciated children with protruding bones and bare feet, likely to be found somewhere in war-torn Africa. But what if you saw a child that was overweight, or even obese. Could that child possibly be hungry? If they are obese, surely they are getting enough to eat, right?
This is one of the problems with identifying hunger in America. Although these problems appear to be contradictory, hunger and obesity are actually very closely related. How so? People experience hunger for many reasons, but almost all of them can be traced back to poverty. Some people simply cannot afford food, or have budgets so tight that they do not know where there next meal is coming from. When they do buy food, they are looking to fill themselves up. Junk foods are cheap, easy, and offer immediate gratification. This explains the paradox of why many people shopping at food pantries appear overweight, rather than emaciated.
In addition to financial access to food, some people lack physical and geographic access. While not incredibly common, a population of America’s poor lives trapped in what is known as a food desert. For these people, there is no accessible supermarket. Fresh produce (and often frozen produce) is out of the question. While canned vegetables, dried beans and whole grains may be available; many of America’s poor don’t know what to do with these foods, or how to combine them into a satisfying meal. Processed snack foods are cheap and have extremely long shelf lives, making them attractive choices to people that suffer from hunger or food insecurity. Simply put, empty calories are much easier to come by.
Looking for more information on this topic? I highly recommend A Place at the Table, the new documentary film that came out about a month or two ago. The film explores problems of poverty and food security across America, and gives excellent examples of how obesity and hunger are so closely related. Another resource regarding the paradox of hunger and obesity is the book Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel. I haven’t read it yet, but it is definitely on my list. Lastly, here is a USDA interactive map to find food deserts in America.