As we approach Thanksgiving, a holiday centered on giving thanks around a table of delicious food shared with family and friends, I beseech you to take the time to think about your neighbors. Not just the neighbors who live on your street, but every person that lives in Sarasota County. As you reflect on what you are thankful for, I want you to reflect on how we can improve the well-being of every member of the Sarasota community—specifically I want you to consider how we, as a community, can work to abolish food insecurity.
The SCOPE 2014 Community Report Card explores the issue of healthy eating, highlighting hindrances such as the lack of accessibility and unaffordability. Accessibility concerns the ability of a household to access grocery stores or other food outlets that offer healthy/fresh options. Affordability concerns the cost of healthier/fresher food options. In 2009, 68% of adults in Sarasota County reported eating less than 5 servings of fruits or vegetables everyday (healthindicators.gov; Community Report Card). In 2013 the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC) published a 2012 study, “Food Hardship in America 2012.” According to this study, 1 in 6 households in the United States were impacted by food hardship. Florida ranked number 12, landing itself in the top 20 states worst states for food hardship, with 21.3 percent of survey respondents answering they did not have enough money at some point in the last twelve months to buy food. The summary of the All Faith’s Food Bank and Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s 2014 report “On the Edge I and On the Edge II: Child Hunger Study Summary” highlights that, Florida is one of six states with “the highest child food-insecurity rates in the country.”*
Some of you may be unaware of the level of food security present in Sarasota County or Florida as a whole. “On the Edge I” highlights that, in Sarasota County, there are 9 census tract areas that are labeled as food deserts, “whereby urban residents live one mile or more and rural residents live 10 miles or more from a supermarket or large grocery store.” The following quote from a FRAC report illustrates how hunger may be invisible to those unaffected: “Americans do not always recognize how pervasive hunger is, or that it is a problem where they live. In our communities it is often hidden by families that do not want to share their economic struggles…It goes unseen by those not looking for it.” But food insecurity, with or without hunger, is present in Sarasota County, and it is impacting many of our neighbors, including children. In the 2012-13 academic year, 52.08% of students in Sarasota County were eligible for free/reduced price lunch (Florida Department of Education; Community Report Card). How does food insecurity influence the development of youth? Well, when we look at the FCAT scores of 10th grade students eligible for free or reduced price lunch (FRL) and those who are not, the eligible students have lower passing rates.
Figure 1: “Percent of Students Passing the 10th Grade FCAT and the Percent of Students Receiving Free/Reduced Lunch Sarasota County,” 2014 SCOPE Community Report Card, Data Source: Florida Department of Education.
The summary of “On the Edge I and On the Edge II” researchers found that a large number of children in Sarasota County experience ‘food insecurity without hunger,” as illustrated by the responses to the following questions: “did your meals only include a few kinds of cheap foods because your family was running out of money to buy food;” “did you worry that food at home would run out before your family got money to buy more;” “did the food that your family bought run out before your family had money to buy more?” “On the Edge I” refers to literature that presents the mental and physical effects of worrying, such as anxiety and poor school performance.
What causes food insecurity? “On the Edge” links high levels of poverty and unemployment to food insecurity. As also seen in the Community Report Card, poverty and unemployment has increased in Sarasota between 2007 and 2012. The percent of people in poverty in Sarasota County increased from 8.10% to 12.70%; the percent of Sarasota County residents under the age of 18 in poverty increased from 13.10% to 21.50% (Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates; Community Report Card). The unemployment rate increased from 4.4% in 2007 to 8.8% in 2012 (Local Area Unemployment Statistics; Community Report Card). During this time, there was an increase in the percent of Sarasota County households receiving food stamps from 2.19% to 8.66% (American Community Survey; Community Report Card). While poverty is a cause of food insecurity, the “On the Edge” report highlights that food insecurity may negatively impact both people living above or below the poverty line.
It is important to also recognize that the presence of food insecurity in the US at any regional level is a result of structural failures. This is clear just in the definition of a food desert, which is a result of physical barriers to food access (in this case, distance). Joseph Stiglitz presents the question “How could it be that in the richest country of the world there was still hunger,” in his article “The Insanity of Our Food Policy.” How could someone working 2,080 hours a year earn less than the poverty threshold for a family of three? An important point Stiglitz draws out is “American farmers are heralded as among the most efficient in the world…and yet millions of Americans still suffer from hunger, and millions more would, were it not for the vital programs that the government provides to prevent hunger.” Further, Stiglitz highlights that American food policies tend to foster production of cheap, unhealthy foods, negatively impacting the food options and health of lower-income Americans. The issue is a structural failure.
Dismantling the structural inequalities that fosters food insecurity, as well as other inequalities, takes more than holiday donations, which are very, very important in my opinion and I encourage you to donate if you can, be it a donation of your time or of goods! But, it takes an attitude change of society—an attitude change that reflects on the fact that every individual is human with value regardless of their socioeconomic class, their race, their gender, their nationality, their religion, or any other identifiers that have been used as a tool of differentiation. It takes policy change. It takes local initiatives. It takes consistent commitment. It takes a lifestyle change (one which I still haven’t completely figured out…).
This holiday season, I hope you remember the people who are working full time, minimum wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet. Instead of wondering what they did wrong to end up in the situation they did, I hope you ask yourself why the minimum wage isn’t enough to live off of (and I hope you think beyond just suggesting that they get another job…). I hope you consider the people who are out of work for various reasons and are struggling to stay afloat. I hope you take the next step and consider how the economic stance of individuals impacts their dependents, including children and dependent adults. Then, I hope you consider how that will impact the future of Sarasota County. When you’re done considering these things, I hope you consider what you can do to help your neighbors have a more enjoyable holiday season and what efforts you will commit to in the New Year to demand and enforce change. Whether your efforts are big or small, every effort is significant.
P.S. If you are interested in learning more about Sarasota County, from the state of education to the state of parks, be sure to check out the 2014 SCOPE Community Report Card. Further, keep an eye out for the Community Report Card Road Show starting in January—a great opportunity to discuss your aspirations for your community and share thoughts about the data in the report card.
*Thanks to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and All Faith’s Food Bank for taking the lead on gathering research on this critically important issue at a local level!