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How Hard Is It to Feed a Family of Four These Days?

Hard, but not nearly as hard as it’s about to be

It’s hard for a lot of people to put food on the table for a family of four. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to get worse. 

For context, the average four-person family spent about $731 a month for a “low-cost” meal plan, according to a 2017 survey from the USDA. That definition requires buying more staple foods like dried grains and legumes, finding discounts on pricey proteins and avoiding eating out — the basics of budgeting, in other words. 

In theory, it should be easier than ever for Americans to put meals on their tables every day. While food prices have skyrocketed since the turn of the 20th century, we spend a smaller proportion of our money on groceries than our grandparents did. The average household today spends about 10.5 percent of their income on food; back in 1900, the number was closer to 50 percent. Other quality-of-life standards have trended way up, too, whether it’s access to medical care or the economic upsides brought on by the internet revolution. 

And yet, despite all that progress, one in six Americans report running out of food once a year or more — a stark contrast to our neighbors in Europe, where the number is more like one in 20. Overall, the number of people in the country going hungry on any given day has ballooned to 48 million, per a 2012 report. That’s five times the number surveyed in the late 1960s, and a jump of 57 percent since the late 1990s. The growth of private soup kitchens and food banks helps contextualize the crisis, too: An industry of just a few hundred programs in 1980 is now a network of 60,000 hubs of emergency food distribution. 

Why is this happening? The factors for each family’s struggle is a unique fingerprint, but economists and other experts point to a common enemy: We’re not making enough money. “This is not your grandmother’s hunger,” Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at the City University of New York, told National Geographic. “Today more working people and their families are hungry because wages have declined.”

Food insecurity is a tricky beast, supported and contradicted by national statistics on poverty, race and class. Unlike the stereotype of the jobless person with food stamps, two-thirds of hungry children have at least one working adult providing for them, usually with a full-time gig. While black and Latino workers are struggling with a national wage gap, a huge proportion of hungry households are still white. Food insecurity is found in rich and poor neighborhoods, in urban cities and rural villages. 

And it’s killing us, as the scrabble for sustenance often creates diets full of cheap processed foods as well as existential stress, trouble paying medical bills and beyond. “Food insecurity is a national health care crisis,” Craig Gundersen, lead researcher for hunger relief organization Feeding America, has told U.S. News

Why are things going to get harder? Continuing wage stagnation and the impact of wealth inequality in the U.S., certainly. But the biggest threat is thanks to a phenomenon impacting communities all over the world: Climate change. 

Major heat waves have hurt rice and wheat production in places as disparate as Australia and Russia, and a global wheat deficit in 2018 undoubtedly dinged our wallets as we shopped for pasta and bread. Citrus crops, like those in Florida, are being threatened by unusual bugs and extreme weather events like hurricanes. A 2011 study found that harvest yields in global vegetable and legume production could collapse by 35 percent by 2100 due to depleted fresh water sources and thicker ozone in the atmosphere. A more recent 2018 report found that U.S. production of corn could fall by half with a 40-degree increase in average global temperature — which scientists predict could happen by 2100. 

This isn’t just doom-and-gloom speculation, but rather the logical conclusion to a climate-change catastrophe that we’ve barely begun to grasp. In the meantime, President Donald Trump’s squabbling with China over tariffs are leading to rising prices for canned goods (since we’re taxing steel imported from China) and pork prices (since China is taxing our pork, reducing demand overseas and therefore profits for farmers here). And his administration has also created a shell game out of SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which offers a monthly stipend for people struggling to afford food. The rules have changed several times in the last three years, and almost 30 percent of people who are food-insecure still don’t qualify for federal aid. 

Food assistance is a moral and economic issue, not a political one, and yet a partisan divide on the ethics of hunger remains. It’s a place where food-insecurity experts hope to make practical change, and there’s more cause for optimism if we can get a better handle on, say, the massive amount of fresh food waste that ends up rotting in landfills. There is arguably enough money and resources in this country to lift hungry people up; like every other element of class-based inequality, though, it needs systematic change. 

There are smart ways to calculate a better monthly budget, but the idea that we can simply scrimp and save our way out of the hunger crisis in America is perhaps missing the point. The inability to put food on the table isn’t just some individual problem — it’s a referendum on how we’ll all start being hungry if we don’t start thinking a lot bigger.