Almost 1 of every 4 people in the world’s fifth-largest economy has trouble getting enough nutritious food to eat.
Almost half of all low-income Black adults in California experience food insecurity. Specialist 3rd Class Cristina Gabaldon / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
We all know what hunger is—that slightly sick, vaguely painful feeling in your gut when you haven’t had enough to eat. But when large numbers of people experience hunger all at once, often on a chronic basis, defining “hunger” is no longer that simple.
In 2023, approximately 8.8 million Californians, or 23 percent of the population, suffer from food insecurity. Across the United States the rate of food insecurity was 12.8 percent.
Hunger as a social problem is caused by more than simply not having enough food to eat. The main causes of that kind of widespread hunger have less to do with food shortages than they do with problems getting food to people who need it the most.
Hunger is both a supply problem and a distribution problem.
Before looking at how much, and why, hunger exists in California, it is important to make a distinction between two terms that are used frequently in any discussion of the subject.
Hunger vs. Food Insecurity: What’s the Difference?
Individual hunger can result from any number of factors, some of them possibly economic—you’re too broke to afford enough food, or you don’t have access to a nearby supermarket. Medical issues, stress, or unhealthy lifestyle practices can also cause hunger.
For employees in industries that do not offer paid sick leave, simply contracting an illness can lead to food insecurity. Missing work means no pay and therefore, less cash to buy food.
The other, perhaps more important, term is “food insecurity.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
Since 2006, the USDA has divided food insecurity into two levels. “Very low food security” describes households that have had multiple instances of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns.
“Low food security” means reduced access to good quality, variety, or desirability of food. Households with low food security may get enough food to hold off hunger, but they may not always have access to high-quality food—which can lead to malnutrition and other health problems.
“Marginal food security” refers to households with “one or two” instances of a food shortage in the house, or anxiety over obtaining enough food. Finally, households with “high food security” report no limits on access to food and no problems getting sufficient food.
Some Causes of Food Insecurity
While the cause of hunger is pretty easy to understand, food insecurity is more complex. For families who rely on farming, for example, a short stretch of unfavorable weather can cause food insecurity. For employees in industries that do not offer paid sick leave, simply contracting an illness can lead to food insecurity. Missing work means no pay and therefore, less cash to buy food.
“A common cause of chronic undernutrition among developing countries is inadequate purchasing power: regardless of what country they live in, the wealthy go hungry perhaps only in times of war or natural disaster.”
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE REPORT
Almost one of every four American workers do not get sick leave with pay (as of March 2023), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. California has tried to do at least something about that. Since 2014 the state has required employers to grant three paid sick days per year. A new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October of 2023 raised that number to five.
Climate change is another cause of food insecurity. Climate shocks have a severe impact on the global food supply, not only on the quantity of food but the quality as well, according to the nonprofit Action for Hunger, as does war and economic inequity.
War and other types of violence are also major causes of food insecurity. Many of the world’s most conflict-ridden countries are also among the highest in food insecurity.
Food Insecurity in California
In 2023, approximately 8.8 million Californians, or 23 percent of the population, suffer from food insecurity, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, as reported by the California Association of Food Banks. Across the United States, according to 2022 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, the rate of food insecurity was 12.8 percent. That was worse than in 2021, when 10.2 percent were food insecure at some point during the year.
In California, where 20 of 58 counties had food insecurity rates of 12 percent or higher as of 2021 (the latest year for which county data is available), the largest cluster is in the northern region of the state, where 12 of 17 counties north of Yolo County have rates ranging from 12.2 percent (Yuba County) to 14.7 percent (Trinity County). But the county with the highest food insecurity rate is Imperial County, which borders Mexico to the south and Arizona to the east, at 17 percent.
Imperial County is also the second-poorest in California, with a median household income of $49,078 according to data compiled by the financial site Smart Asset. The poorest county? Trinity, with a median income of $42,206.
It should not be a surprise that income inequality is a primary driver of food insecurity. This is a global fact of life. According to a USDA report, “a common cause of chronic undernutrition among developing countries is inadequate purchasing power: regardless of what country they live in, the wealthy go hungry perhaps only in times of war or natural disaster.”
The same that is true for entire countries—or California counties—is true for individuals. Food insecurity, poor nutrition, and health issues related to insufficient or poor-quality food are more prevalent in lower-income regions and groups.
Race and ethnicity also correlate with food insecurity. In California, according to a 2022 study by researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford, Latinx people experience higher rates of food insecurity than whites, with the highest rate, 12 percent, afflicting non-citizen Lantinx Californians. The rate of food insecurity among white residents was 8.2 percent.
Non-citizen Asian residents at 12.5 percent also had greater food insecurity than whites, though U.S.-born and naturalized citizens of Asian descent did not. The situation for Black Californians was even more dire. According to numbers from UCLA’s 2022 California Health Interview Survey, 49.9 percent of low-income Black adults in California could not afford adequate food that year.
How to Combat Food Insecurity
The fact that, in the world’s fifth-largest economy, millions of Californians experience food insecurity and even outright hunger on a daily basis seems unbelievable, even appalling. So what can be done about it?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government raised the amount paid out in SNAP benefits by 15 percent. The hike resulted in 850,000 fewer cases of food insecurity per week. By March 2023, the SNAP benefit hike ended in all 50 states.
Since food insecurity is closely related to income levels, or as the USDA put it, “purchasing power,” raising people’s incomes seems like an obvious answer. A 2022 study by the UC Davis Center for Poverty and Equality Research reached that conclusion, finding that for a minimum wage household, a raise of 6.6 percent led to a 3 percent increase in calories purchased, as well as some improvement in the nutritional value of calories consumed.
In a 2016 report, the Century Foundation found that an increase to a $15 national minimum wage by 2023 would lift 1.2 million U.S. households out of food insecurity. Minority households would comprise 44 percent of those 1.2 million. As of Jan. 1, 2023, California’s minimum wage went up to $15.50 per hour, and will hit $16 at the start of 2024.
The single most powerful government program to combat food insecurity, however, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which pays cash benefits to low-income families and individuals to help with their grocery purchases. In California, this program—colloquially known as “food stamps”—goes by the name CalFresh. As of 2022, 4,627,700 Californians received CalFresh benefits each month. That’s about one of every eight California residents.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government raised the amount paid out in SNAP benefits by 15 percent. The hike resulted in 850,000 fewer cases of food insecurity per week, according to a study published in the academic journal Lancet Regional Health. In 2021, according to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, food insecurity for families hit its lowest point in two decades, thanks to the additional benefits.
By March 2023, the SNAP benefit hike ended in all 50 states. As a result, the average SNAP recipient saw a cut of $90 per month in food purchasing power, while some families saw cuts of as much as $250 per month. By the late months of 2023 it was still too early to tell how the end of the additional SNAP benefits would affect food insecurity across the country—but it seemed safe to say that insecurity would only increase.
Free school lunch programs also reduce food insecurity, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center. Starting with the 2022-2023 school year, California became the first state to put a Universal Meals Program in place for all school children statewide. The California program requires schools to provide free, nutritionally adequate breakfasts and lunches for all students each day.
Want to Help End Hunger? Stop Wasting Food
Of course, contributing to or volunteering for community food banks also helps alleviate food insecurity—but one of the most important steps anyone can take to contribute to bringing down food insecurity is to stop wasting food.
Food waste is more than a personal issue—it’s a systemic failure. Infrastructure improvements would help reduce the amount of wasted food.
Nationally, Americans simply waste between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply, according to the USDA. In California, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, about 6 million tons of food go to waste each year, about 10 percent of all food wasted in the U.S. The amount of food wasted worldwide could end hunger for 2 billion people, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
Even if we concede that it wouldn’t be feasible to capture all wasted food and put it on people’s tables, food waste leads to food insecurity in other important ways. Wasting food reduces the food supply, which drives up prices. Making food more affordable alleviates food insecurity by increasing the purchasing power of people with limited incomes.
Wasting food contributes to climate change, another cause of food insecurity. Most wasted food ends up in landfills—in fact, landfills worldwide contain more unused food than any other kind of refuse—and rotting food is responsible for 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Food emits methane, which is 25 times worse than carbon when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Food waste can be reduced at the individual and family level by storing food better, serving smaller portions so less food goes unconsumed, eating leftovers, donating food you don’t use, and many other measures.
But food waste is more than a personal issue—it’s a systemic failure. Infrastructure improvements would help reduce the amount of wasted food. Roads with poor flood control and other structural issues can slow the time it takes food to reach tables, resulting in spoilage.
Poor packaging that allows foods to go bad, untrained cooks who don’t know the correct portions to use in preparing food, and retailers who stock food in incorrect amounts because they fail to correctly predict demand also all lead to food going to waste. Confusion over “sell-by dates” on consumer food packaging also leads to food being trashed rather than used.
Ending hunger and food insecurity, it appears, is a society-wide project that not only requires people to change their behavior and attitudes toward food, but even more importantly, governments and policies will have to change as well.
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