Some in this arena have asserted that enhancing general food intake (irrespective of source or quality) is the key to reducing chronic hunger and food insecurity among afflicted households (Craig Gunderson illustrates aspects of this viewpoint). Intuitively, this makes sense: if individuals and families routinely go hungry due to inadequate food access, providing more meals of any sort should promptly quell the situation.
In reality, the situation is not so straight-forward. The approach referenced above often translates into food insecure households working diligently to stretch their dollar by maximizing the calories per food item, a phenomenon discussed by Adam Drewnowski in a 2009 study. In nutritionist jargon, they seek energy density, and the cheapest, most energy dense foods are mostly low in vital nutrients. Unsurprisingly, these tend to be processed meals and snacks high in fats and simple sugars. Conversely, high-nutrient meals are generally costlier for low-income consumers along multiple dimensions (not just in terms of price).
In dire circumstances, consuming calorie-rich processed foods for sustenance provides crucial, rapid relief. However, over-using this course for an extended period can spawn variety of health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, to name just a few. Adding insult to injury, these unintended consequences can hamper the pursuit of an approach that takes longer, but is ultimately far more fruitful: developing the ability to acquire high-quality foods and prepare nutritious meals. Over time, this turns into a vicious, reinforcing feedback loop: pursuing cheaper food leads to chronic issues that make it increasingly difficult to eat nutritiously as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Using our systemic lens, this behavior pattern is a common archetype called shifting the burden whereby a problem burden (hunger) is addressed with a fast-acting response (cheap foods) that provides short-term relief, but comes at the expense of a longer-term response (nutritious foods) that would lead to a more sustainable resolution. This dynamic is depicted in the systems map below.
None of this means that responsibility lies solely with food insecure individuals and families. As Drewnowski and Darmon highlight, it is far too easy to proclaim that low and moderate income Americans should prepare more healthy meals at home, rather than consume processed meals from fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Instead, we contend that the scope of the US food insecurity challenge extends well beyond hunger and food intake at the household level, as important as these facets are.
Food insecure households do not operate independently in silos. They are part of a much broader societal ecosystem, and there are many potent systemic forces impacting those mentioned above. As we will discover over the course of this StatusNovi blog series, household-level hunger management is but a small tip of the food insecurity iceberg.