This Isn’t Recovery: Food Deserts, Food Pantries, and the 18.6% of Americans Who Can’t Afford Food

Last night I watched an episode of Life After People called “The Last Supper.”  It showed what some scientists think will happen to the food supply after the human race ceases to inhabit the planet.  A statistic I found surprising:  there are 100,000 grocery stores in the world.

You may know that I’ve been addressing the issue of food deserts on this blog and via Beerituality.  100,000 grocery stores doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when you consider that through affiliates, franchises, and company stories, McDonald’s operates over 33,000 locations worldwide.  Granted, it’s the biggest, but that’s just one chain.

This morning, two things came through my email affirming my fear that the food desert issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Today, Jon Geeting shares “New Food Pantry Opens as Pols Debate Whether to Restrict the Food Supply More.”  An excerpt:

I think you should read this story about a new food pantry opening to meet higher demand in Bethlehem alongside these stories about how much the government should try to stop people from opening low-margin, low-overhead businesses that sell cheap food.

Food pantries serve people who have the highest need, who literally don’t have money to buy food in a store. But right above them on the poverty scale, there are people who make very little money, who, if the economy were to get somewhat worse, could easily end up needing to make use of a food pantry or similar charity.

People in that group make up a real market for very cheap meals that cost $2-5. Maybe the people in this group are buying all their meals, but I bet some are going to the food bank because they live too far from places where they can buy cheap nutritious food, and don’t own a car.

And, in the #ThisShouldBeObvious file, Alexander Eichler of the Huffington Post says “Growing Number Of Americans Can’t Afford Food, Study Finds.”  As Eichler points out:

The findings from FRAC highlight what many people already know: The economic recovery, in theory now more than two years old, has done little to keep millions of Americans out of poverty and deprivation. Incomes for many haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, and for a large swath of the country, things today are as bad as ever, or worse.

According to the study, the number of people who can’t always afford food for their families in America in 2011 was a staggering 18.6 percent.  In America. 18.6 percent.

One: There is no recovery.  If the recession is over, it’s because we’re in something worse.  You know it. I know it.  The folks running overflowing homeless shelters know it.  At the Sixth Street Shelter here in Allentown, over 1/3 of resident households are headed by people with jobs.  These are people trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, people who are doing what we’re being told are the right things and are still falling woefully short.  As Jon points out, there are millions of people one paycheck away from the same situation.

Even if unemployment is falling, it’s not a recovery if people can’t eat.

Two: As my Grammy would say, God forgive.



  1. Chad Hogg · February 29, 2012

    Seriously, Bethlehem restaurants are still fighting about the guy with the hot dog cart? That started at least 3 years ago, while I was still living in Bethlehem. I am not sure that I buy the argument that he provides a vital source of food for those on the edge of being able to feed themselves though. That particular area is not a food desert, I would think, due to the presence of Ahart’s Market, which is a low-cost, low-quality grocery store on Montclair Ave. You can definitely buy ingredients there and prepare them yourself for less than the cost of a vended hot dog, assuming that you have access to a kitchen of sorts.

    I tried looking for FRAC reports from earlier years but gave up after a few minutes. Without having any non-anecdotal data, I would guess that the can’t-afford-food rate was a lot closer to the staggering 18.6% than you would expect in the boom times as well. When determining the nation’s economic health it seems that economists take a “you will always have the poor among you” philosophy. So I guess what I wanted to say is this: Is the dire condition of the most vulnerable Americans an indication that we are in a recession or worse, or is it just the norm?


    • Christopher Cocca · February 29, 2012

      Good question. The new study says that more Americans than ever “since the economic crisis started” are unable to feed themselves. If it’s this high in boom times, too, the problem is even bigger. And, as you say, there are plenty of economists (and politicians) who take the “always among you” stance, even as they talk about bootstraps. In this election cycle, Newt Gingrich has talked the most about creating an economy of opportunity, and I wonder exactly what that would mean. It’s interesting to me that he’s also the person who hammered out welfare reform with Clinton. Then you have Romney who says “eh, there are safety nets that work. And if they don’t work, I’ll fix them.” Yeah, sure thing, because no one else before you has wanted to or tried. Hmm.

      You make a good point about the mobile vendor issue…I don’t know if easier access to cart food would be a big help in a food desert, but it might depending on what’s being made and what the price points are.

      Here’s the food desert locator. I do want to check and see if the neighborhood you’re talking about is within a USDA food desert census tract.


  2. The Savvy Sister · February 29, 2012

    At our shelter (relatively small suburban), 5 years ago, they would serve about 85 lunches/day, now it’s in the neighborhood of 150 and a lot of these are families…mom, dad and kids. They provided over 8000 meals over the holidays, and provided 180,000 summer lunches to kids who wouldn’t get lunch because school was out for the summer. That number has risen dramatically over the past 5 years. (it was 85,000 about 7 years ago)
    The price of food is insane, and with gas on the rise, it’s just going to get worse.
    in an attempt to see the silver lining, there are some positives I see:
    –more folks are volunteering and creating awareness and a sense of community realizing that it’s not “us” and “them” but that we are all just “us”. The food for the summer lunches comes directly from the community who supplies and hand makes and packages each brown bag, each sandwich, each “treat”,… and has volunteer drivers. It’s truly amazing. (CNN did a piece on the program)
    –more folks are growing their own food, or supporting local farmers whose food is fresher, cheaper, and healthier than the market’s
    This is what I am seeing on a local level in a small suburb in the southeast.


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