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City Room: The Cost of Hunger

November 28, 2008; New York Times; City Room: The Cost of Hunger; by Joel Berg.

Do we know the societal economic costs of hunger? For example, how hunger contributes to medical care costs, loss of productivity, etc.?

— Posted by Sondra


Excellent question: A recent study written by Dr. J. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health concluded: [pdf]

“The cost burden of hunger in the United States is a minimum of $90 billion annually. This means that on average each person living in the U.S. pays $300 annually for the hunger bill. On a household basis this cost is $800 a year. And calculated on a lifetime basis, each of us pays a $22,000 tax for the existence of hunger. And because the $90 billion cost figure is based on a cautious methodology, we anticipate that the actual cost of hunger and food insecurity to the nation is higher.”

On the basis of that study, I calculated that in New York City alone, city residents pay an estimated $2.65 billion per year, about $335 per resident, resulting from indirect costs of the city’s 1.3 million food-insecure residents. People in every city, county and town of America must pay their own share of the massive national costs of hunger.

In contrast, I have calculated that it would cost America an additional $24 billion per year to end hunger. If we invested $24 billion to save $90 billion, I’d say that was a great investment indeed.


How can we make nutritional food more affordable for those with lower incomes? Cheap, low-nutritional food is too readily available. And much less expensive.

— Posted by Terry


In food security issues and hunger issues, in order for fundamental change to occur, government must be a key player. In the late 1990s, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman started the Community Food Security Initiative and placed me in charge of it. One of the key goals of the effort was to increase in the amount of nutritious, affordable food in low-income neighborhoods. The initiative gave out million of dollars in Community Food Project grants each year to aid food security efforts, named coordinators of community food security in all 50 states, promoted community gardens and ramped up technical assistance efforts to such projects.

As president, Barack Obama should restart such an initiative immediately and work with Congress to give it serious resources. The president and Congress should also work together to integrate these efforts more fully with the Department of Agriculture’s nutrition assistance programs. One way to accomplish this would be to significantly expand the ability of participants in the Women, Infant and Children and food stamp programs to use their benefits at farm stands, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture projects and street vendors that sell fruit and vegetables. All levels of government should increase their financing for nonprofit groups running effective community food security projects.

The president and Congress must focus agriculture resources on aiding truly struggling small and medium family farmers, particularly those growing fresh fruits and vegetables. The federal government should also better protect drinking water by increasing aid for conservation measures on small farms.

The president and Congress — as well as states, localities and tribal governments — should shift procurement rules to make it easier for school districts, public hospitals, prisons and all other public institutions to purchase food directly from small farmers. Also, more of the food commodities purchased by the government for soup kitchens and food pantries should be purchased directly from small farmers.

All levels of government should also use a combination of tax breaks, grants, land swaps and other innovative efforts to preserve farmland. Localities must preserve existing — and set aside new — land for urban farms and gardens and farmers’ markets. Local governments should require all large real estate development projects to include plans for food, including rooftop gardens and greenhouses, affordable supermarkets (staffed by employees paid a living wage), and farmers’ markets in public spaces.

Since the big money in agriculture is made from processing, all levels of government will want to support the creation of local and regional processing facilities.

Government can also do a much better job in encouraging new supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods and in preventing existing food stores from going out of business. A study conducted by the city of New York found: “The city is vastly underserved by local grocery stores. N.Y.C. has the potential to capture approximately $1 billion in grocery spending lost to suburbs.”

Pennsylvania has provided a model of how the nation can bring more food stores to underserved areas. The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group, as well as other organizations, collaborated with the state to form a public-private partnership to create the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which gives supermarkets a secure source of funds, as well as technical assistance, to locate in low-income areas. The initiative was well financed — with $120 million in combined governmental and private money in 2008 — and committed resources to 50 supermarket projects in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Eddystone, Gettysburg and other cities and towns across Pennsylvania.

The bottom line is that we must all do much more to make nutritious food both physically available and economically affordable in low-income neighborhoods.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

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