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