What does food insecurity look like?

First-hand, I confess, I have no idea. But I’m learning. Usually when a middle-class family from a 1st-world country thinks of food insecurity, they think starvation: stick-thin limbs, belly bloated, flies around mouth, etc. Starvation could happen in the sub-Saharan desert, but Montgomery County? Not a chance. So it’s helpful to understand what lack of adequate food actually looks like.

If at picture is worth a thousand words, this photo essay may be worth a thousand of mine:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/02/magazine/food-insecurity-hunger-us.html Take a look at the actual experience of food-lessness as you gaze upon these images.

As I’ve volunteered at the Germantown HELP and now at the Black Rock Food Distribution Hub, I can see why food supplementation is important. Sure, if you’re homeless, you may not have any money for food. But they have soup kitchens for those folks, right? If you’re not homeless, then you must have at least some money for groceries. Yes and no. If you are renting a space, paying rent is your top priority to avoid homelessness. After that comes utilities, gas for the car so you can get to your job so you have an income, odd-ball fees like driver’s registration and taxes. Then you might think about groceries – IF you have any money left! You have to have lived on the edge to know that haunting feeling of having to choose between a haircut for your child and a decent meal!

So no, just because you earn a living doesn’t mean you have enough for food. But secondly, just because you have money for groceries doesn’t mean you have money for good food. As many of the photos in the New York Times article noted above show, high carb, low nutrient diets are the cheapest. Fresh fruits & vegetables, wholesome breads, non-processed meats tend to cost more than their less-nutritious counterparts e.g. canned beans, Wonder bread, hot dogs. So if you’re food insecure, it may mean eating but not eating very well. Stories abound of children eating ketchup for lunch or mac & cheese every night. They’re getting fed but the malnutrition has consequences: more trips to the doctor’s office, less ability to focus at school, long-term health concerns, etc.

The time it takes to cook good food also weighs in. If parents are too busy working or come home exhausted from working multiple jobs, food prep will not be high on their list of priorities. Less nutritious and balanced meals is the natural consequence.

Finally, many volunteers ask: why is it that we deliver food to folks who look like they are perfectly able to go to the grocery store? Well, looks can be deceiving. Getting around the house easily doesn’t always translate into getting out and shopping and lugging bags of groceries home! Physical handicaps come in many forms. Moreover, there can be logistical barriers: I spoke with one mom of a one-car family whose husband took the car to work each day and didn’t come home until later at night. With two little ones to watch, getting to a grocery store was a formidable challenge – and that was with another parent around to help. If transportation is a problem, what will give? Fresh food.

So when we talk of food insecurity, we’re not talking about people dying of starvation. But we are talking about serious consequences. Sort of like good medicine or education: you can survive for a while without either but sooner or later one’s health, one’s well-being, one’s ability to function, one’s likelihood of thriving will be significantly altered.

If you have donated food, picked up donations, packed food, delivered food to a home, or participated in the distribution of food to food-insecure families in this community, thank you! It means a lot. More than you’ll know.


  1. Debbie Gant says

    Some great stats about world hunger. Easily readable.

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