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The cost of hunger in Idaho: $750 million a year

Hunger is often described as an “invisible” problem because it is hard for others to see if a fellow Idahoan has missed a meal or is chronically short of food. Nevertheless, hunger is a significant social and economic issue in Idaho that reveals itself in a variety of ways and hurts Idaho businesses.

One in every six Idahoans is food insecure. Food insecurity simply means that a person lacks consistent access to adequate food for an active healthy lifestyle. Many, if not most, of these 236,000 people (aside from the 95,000 children included in this number) are someone’s employees. Their lack of food costs our state $750 million a year, up from $620 million in 2007, according to a study by Brandeis University.

In the United States, 50.2 million people are food insecure, and the Brandeis study conservatively calculated the cost to the nation to be at least $167.5 billion, up 33.5 percent from $125.5 billion in 2007. In 2010, that cost averaged $542 per person and at least $1,410 per household.

This is America’s hunger bill, and the benefits of reducing it accrue to everyone. The tools – public and private assistance – are available. Supporting them ultimately means a stronger bottom line.

Hunger brings higher costs to business when employees face poor health and more chronic disease, psychological suffering such as depression, family issues and, paradoxically, obesity because some people without adequate income will forgo nutritious food for high-calorie items that cost less. Food-insecure workers are distracted and too often absent, and the costs of health care, education and other social needs increase to meet the need. These are avoidable costs.

In young families, inadequate prenatal nutrition harms a baby’s growth, development and health. In school, hunger reduces academic achievement and preparation for higher education and employment. The future workforce, and the strength of our communities, is being compromised.

Imagine the savings to Idaho if we could prevent these problems rather than having to repair the damage after it has occurred.

The Brandeis study reported that food insecurity resulted in lost productivity, more expensive public education because of the rising costs of poor education outcomes, avoidable health care costs and the cost of private charity. This $167.5 billion did not include food stamps and the other key federal nutrition programs, which cost about $94 billion annually.

Researchers found hunger affects productivity in every demographic slice of society – from children to adults to seniors – and every employment situation, private or public.

They also noted that the $167.5 billion estimate is based on a cautious methodology. The actual cost of hunger and food insecurity to our nation – and state – is probably higher.

One way to reduce these costs is public assistance in the form of food stamps, WIC, and other programs that help both families and the economy. Food stamps currently put food on the table for more than 235,000 Idahoans, many of whom are working. According to the USDA, every $5 in food stamps generates $9 in economic activity – a total of $56.5 million a month.

But this assistance is only part of the equation. Food stamps are “supplemental” and not intended to meet all food needs of the recipient. Plus, only 70 percent of eligible Idahoans receive them, 2 percent below the national average. In addition, there are 87,000 food-insecure Idahoans whose income is too high to qualify for any of these federal assistance programs.

Private nonprofits fill these gaps and reduce Idaho’s hunger bill by minimizing the costly long-term damage hunger can inflict. But the strain of meeting that need is showing. At The Idaho Foodbank, food distribution has increased 90 percent in the past four years, yet we still cannot keep up with the need we see across the state.

We recognize the business community’s shared interest in ending hunger in Idaho, and are grateful for the generous support offered by so many companies. With a concerted effort, we can reduce the cost of hunger through the following efforts:

• Educating people about the assistance available and encourage them to use it.

• Referring people to 211, the Idaho CareLine, for a wide variety of assistance.

• Donating goods – food, clothing and surplus equipment, for example – and hold drives at your company.

• Donating funds to the nonprofit of your choice and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

• Volunteering at a nonprofit. It can be a wonderful team-building exercise.

People in need make more progress when they are supported by faith communities, nonprofit organizations, business communities and government. Our collective effort should be to efficiently and effectively connect people to these available supports.

The end result will be a lower hunger bill and thousands of additional productive Idahoans who contribute to the same community that assisted them in their time of need.

Karen Vauk is president and CEO of The Idaho Foodbank

About Karen Vauk

5 comments

  1. “Don’t let the number crunchers get you down.” Or just forget the facts when they don’t swing in your favor I guess.

    The definition of food insecure is a lot more loose than people who are missing meals. It basically means people who are uncertain if they can pay for their own food. I can see that number being 1 in 6, however most of those people do work it out. Food stamps and food banks do a very good job of making certain people do ok. I too question the $750 million impact number. I am around social services and poor people a lot, and this just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

  2. Don’t let the conservo number crunchers get you down, Karen. You and IFB do super work and just give, give give. I try to help whenever I can, and i know the problem is at LEAST as big as you say it is. Some people just can’t stand it that they don’t understand how the world really is and that other people need so much help. I wish we could help make it even better.

  3. So let’s see how this math works. 1/6 is about 17% compared to the “real” number of about 2%. Using our old friend the ratio, that would mean the $750 million figure is really 2/17 of that amount, or around $88 million If you go look at the Brandeis study Ms. Vauk cites–which appears to published by that very left wing(nut) organization Center for American Progress (americanprogress.org/issues/2011/10/pdf/hunger_paper.pdf)–you come away with a very strong sense that lots of numbers are dancing around the pages in search of a seat; in other words, there’s lots of action, but not much in the way of foundation. Social pseudo science at its best–baseless assumptions leading to complex extrapolations leading to further assumptions, and so on…. A quick discounting of those areas most ephemeral would reduce Idaho’s $750 million number by at least 75% and arguably by 90%. Let’s be generous and go with the 75%, however, which would take the original $750 million cost estimate for Idaho down to… $22 million. That seems like a really big number–and it is without some context–but when you consider that Idaho’s 2011 budget line item for Health and Human Services is about $1.2 BILLION, it really isn’t all that significant. Yes, hungry Idahoans need help, and we should all chip in as we can, but the $750 million figure and related scare tactics paint the wrong picture; it is not a catastophe of epic proportions, but instead a very managable problem we should have little problem addressing–with the help of well meaning folks just like Ms. Vauk, of course.

  4. Ms. Vauk states, without support, that “One in every six Idahoans is food insecure” and “In the United States, 50.2 million people are food insecure.” No doubt there is–and likely will always be–some degree of a hunger problem in our country; and we should do everything we reasonably can to address it. Inflated, inaccurate statistics do not further the cause, however, since they simply make people incredulous. We hear “one is six”, look around us at our friends, associates, co-workers, passers-by, and say, “that doesn’t sound even close to right”. And it’s not right, not even close. The Idaho Food Bank and other members of the “hunger” community of course have an interest in inflating the problem–the charitable side of me says it’s just there way of generating public attention of the much less dramatic, but still very real, hunger problem. (The less charitable side of me says they are just looking for a raise and job security.) Either way, however, the numbers are wrong. The real numbers can be deciphered by anyone with an internet connection and a will to research. For those looking for a shortcut, Jeremie Rostan, writing for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, has done the work for you, determining that it appears “…2 percent of all American households sometimes feel the “usual uneasy sensation” of hunger due to a lack of economic resources.” That’s a far cry from “one in six”. Mr. Rostan’s entire article may be found at mises.org/daily/3776. I volunteer at the IFB, and will continue to do so, but I would suggest that if they drop the hyperbole on hunger statistics and just stick with the facts, everyone will be better off.

  5. Ms. Vauk states, without support, that “One in every six Idahoans is food insecure” and “In the United States, 50.2 million people are food insecure.” No doubt there is–and likely will always be–some degree of a hunger problem in our country; and we should do everything we reasonably can to address it. Inflated, inaccurate statistics do not further the cause, however, since they simply make people incredulous. We hear “one is six”, look around us at our friends, associates, co-workers, passers-by, and say, “that doesn’t sound even close to right”. And it’s not right, not even close. The Idaho Food Bank and other members of the “hunger” community of course have an interest in inflating the problem–the charitable side of me says it’s just their way of generating public attention to the much less dramatic, but still very real, hunger problem. (The less charitable side of me says they are just looking for a raise and job security.) Either way, however, the numbers are wrong. The real numbers can be deciphered by anyone with an internet connection and a will to research. For those looking for a shortcut, Jeremie Rostan writing for the Ludwig von Mises Institute the work for you, determining that it appears “…2 percent of all American households sometimes feel the “usual uneasy sensation” of hunger due to a lack of economic resources.” That’s a far cry from “one in six”. Mr. Rostan’s entire article may be found here: http://mises.org/daily/3776. I volunteer at the IFB, and will continue to do so, but I would suggest that if they drop the hyperbole on hunger statistics and just stick with the facts, everyone will be better off.