The Price of Hunger: Rising Food Costs Hit Home

Higher food prices are not just a problem for developing economies

Tens of millions of Americans are still unable to afford enough food to feed their families, according to new data released by the Food Research and Action Center. The outlook for the hunger problem worldwide is worsening.

18% of people polled, just a hair under 1 in 5, claim that they were unable to feed themselves or their families due to economic constraints in the past twelve months. Hunger levels peaked in 2008 alongside the economic recession, and have been declining, but very slowly.

There are strong regional disparities, with Southern states reporting high levels of hunger, while the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have the lowest reported levels.

As food prices continue to rise, it is likely that even more Americans will be unable to purchase enough food to keep hunger at bay.

International food prices have catapulted to record high levels in February, following eight months of increases. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the current index for a basket of food commodities is at the highest level since the organization began tracking food prices, nearly 20 years ago.

The price of flour is up 75% and the price of corn up 77% compared to the same period last year. The high prices and reality of a disappointing future crop harvest are encouraging a hoarding mentality, leading to an upward spiral in grain prices around the globe.

Additionally, the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has led to increasing gasoline prices, which will both affect the cost of food and tighten discretionary spending for many consumers.

Unfortunately, it is both easier and cheaper to eat unhealthy food, and for the poor who are under intense financial pressure, buying calorie-dense food such as candies, pastries, snacks and baked goods are a better bargain than more nutritious, but less caloric foods like fruits and vegetables. Produce and other healthy foods are also more likely to see more drastic changes in price due to inflation than the calorie dense junk food.

One of the most common criticisms of sustainable food advocates and their "foodie" brethren is that their vision of the global food system is a hopelessly elitist orgy of gluttony and self congratulation. As James McWilliams, the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, argues:

Foodies never-- and I am mean never-- ask the critical Kantian question:  what if everyone in the world consumed these supposedly sustainable alternatives to conventional food?

While McWilliams is using far too broad a brush for the sustainable food movement, his point is a fresh one-- and sustainable food advocates of all stripes should take notice. As food prices continue to skyrocket, advocates of sustainable food have been eerily quiet at proposing global solutions for the way forward (as have anti-foodies like McWilliams and professional curmudgeon B.R. Myers).

Food policy junkies also need to examine the opposite of McWilliams Kantian question: what happens when nearly everyone in the world consumes "conventional" food?

Unfortunately, it looks like we may already know the answer to that question.