Hunger and Nutrition: Craig Gunderson and Sophie Milam

Professor Craig Gundersen of UIUC and Sophie Milam, Senior Policy Council at Feeding America, will explore problems of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food close to home. Food insecurity is one of the leading public health issues facing the United States today.  It has become an important issue due to the magnitude of the problem – approximately 50 million Americans are food insecure – and the numerous negative health and other consequences associated with food insecurity. Gunderson and Milam spoke with Calumet students Michael Lance and Claire Wild on April 30.

Q:  What would you say are the fundamental and proximate causes underlying food insecurity in the United States and in Chicago specifically?

Craig Gunderson: The underlying determinant is similar between Chicago and the rest of the country – things are pretty standard across there. The main determinant of food insecurity is income. If you look at the distribution of food insecure households, income is probably the major determinant, but it’s not the only determinant insofar as about half of poor households in the United States are food secure. In other words, somehow they manage to get by whereas about ten percent of non-poor households are food insecure. So, seemingly, they would have enough money, but they don’t. There are lots of other determinants beyond that. There are two main ways to talk about this. First, we could say, conditional upon other factors what are the main determinants? Or, we can just say, what are the characteristics? Let me first talk about the characteristics. For example, as you might expect given their low incomes, Latinos and African-Americans have higher rates of food insecurity. American Indians have extraordinarily high rates of food insecurity. Then, if we break it down into household structures, single-parent households have higher rates of food insecurity. Those would be some of the proximate determinants. Other things that we’ve more recently found that are determinants are things like food prices. Things like that also matter. So, there are a lot of different things that go into this, but one of the main ones is income. For those households that are not poor, but are food insecure, often times it’s because they had a recent economic shock. For example, in the recent economic downturn, a lot of people became unemployed who were used to living on $50,000 a year and all of a sudden they’re making $30,000 a year; not enough to make them poor, but enough to make them struggle.

Q: What role does marketing, and the kinds of food available for people to buy, play in food insecurity?

CG: Well, I think the most important thing is that we have low food prices. So, that’s why I think I always tell people the best thing that can happen to a low income neighborhood is, have a Wal-Mart move in. That’s the best news for them because that way they get affordable, safe, healthy foods. So, that’s what I would say. In terms of food marketing, anything that would make things easier for  people to get healthy, inexpensive foods is a good idea…Marketing making people more aware of how they can get inexpensive foods, is really important.

Q: In looking at one of the studies you conducted, Food Insecurity is not Associated with Childhood Obesity as Assessed using Multiple Measures of Obesity, I was wondering, how does that, if at all, challenge traditional conceptions of the consequences of food security? And, what were those multiple measures of obesity?

CG: Okay, food insecurity is associated with a lot of really serious health consequences. In my opinion, this is one of the leading public health issues related to nutrition in the United States. People talk about obesity, [that’s] not nearly as important as food insecurity. There were a couple of early on studies which showed that food insecurity was related to obesity, but they were small samples, very poorly done, and so, we said, well let’s take the gold standard for a data set, The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and ask, well, is there a relationship between the two? And we found that there is no relationship between the two. So, this whole thing about there being a food insecurity-obesity paradox it doesn’t exist! There is no food insecurity paradox, at least amongst children. In the past five years, there hasn’t been a credible study that has found one. So hopefully, that’s off the table. The reason it bothers me is that food insecurity has really serious health consequences, but so many people in America, they want to talk about is obesity, obesity, obesity. It must be frustrating for all of you to see how much people obsess about it. So, I like to move beyond it and just say, food insecurity has lots of negative health consequences, it doesn’t for obesity though.

Q: Apart from having cheap food move into an area, what kind of policies and practices are best suited to addressing food insecurity?

CG: What I would say is encourage participation in SNAP, which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That’s key to [food security]. One of the major factors that can help reduce food insecurity which has been demonstrated over and over again is that if we can make sure that all Americans that are eligible for SNAP, and are in need of it, enroll, that will go a long way in alleviating food insecurity. Any policies that we pursue, [SNAP participation] has to be at the forefront of those policies. So, there are some other policies that I think would also be really important. For example, a lot of times you see children becoming food insecure over the summer time because they don’t have school meals. So, expanding programs out like summer feeding programs for children would be really, really crucial. We have these programs in place and if we can expand them out I think that really can go a long ways. In other words, we have the tools; we just have to implement them. And, with respect to SNAP, at least for a subset of recipients, we could increase benefit levels, or at least restructure benefit levels so it helps out people.

Q: How does your work with Feeding America, the Chicago Food Depository, and the National Soybean Research Laboratory tie into your research regarding food insecurity more generally?

CG: I’ll come back to National Soybean Research Laboratory momentarily. Let me first talk about policy. Feeding America is vitally important. There are so many families who need just a little bit more money or a little bit more food to get through the month who are eligible for SNAP. They have all these SNAP participants and by giving them food through food pantries, that’s what makes them food secure. And, that’s really important [about Feeding America]. The other thing is, as I talked about earlier, there are a lot of people in America who aren’t eligible for any of these food assistance programs that could still utilize Feeding America. So you find more and more people using it not only as an emergency [strategy], but also as a long term strategy. I can’t say enough good about Feeding America, they do a lot of neat work. They’re at the forefront of the battle against food insecurity in the United States. I work with NSRL, (National Soybean Research Laboratory) mainly with producers, you know soybean farmers. It’s an administrative position. Actually, my younger son and I were just in India for two weeks working on how soy is incorporated into school meal programs there as a way of increasing the protein content in a very cheap way. So, in the U.S., with regard to domestic stuff, it doesn’t have that much impact. I do work with NSRL, but it’s not related to my core research agenda, which is food insecurity and the evaluation of food.

Q: Can enrollment in the SNAP program have impacts on people’s health? Is it usually a positive impact?

CG: Yes. We have a paper forthcoming paper with the Journal of the American Statistical Association where we show that [Snap enrollment], of course, leads to reductions in food insecurity. Thinking about that, there has been study after study which has shown this. It’s what is called a stylized fact. It’s beyond question. We also show in the study that it leads to reductions in obesity and reductions in the number of people reporting poor or fair health. And, it leads to reductions in things like anemia. It’s just an amazing thing and it makes sense. You’re giving people more resources to purchase more stuff, of course that’s going to help them out. So, yeah, it’s a fantastic program.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your work with Feeding America?

Sophie Milam: Yes. Craig is a great partner to us. I think that data is really key not only to program evaluation, to knowing what is this need that you’re trying to address, but to our work in educating and mobilizing the public, to engaging members of congress and the administration around policy changes. Having the kind of data that Craig and his peers are producing is really tremendous. So, it’s been a very good partnership for us, working with him.

Q: What is your role, on a day-to-day basis, with Feeding America?

SM: work in the public policy department. I’m one of the lobbyists that’s talking with staff about – well, in good times, the policy improvements we’d like to see – more recently, telling them not to do all the bad things that they’re discussing doing; changes to the program. So, we work on, just getting annual funding for discretionary programs as well as making bigger policy changes too.

Q: Last week we had a talk by Ken Cook about the Farm Bill which had a lot to do with the things we’ve been talking about in terms of policy and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Could you talk about the importance of the 2012 Farm Bill to food security?

SM: Yes. The farm bill contains the biggest, federal nutrition program, SNAP. So, just by default it’s incredibly important to addressing food security. This year is particularly important as we look at how much need has increased in the last few years. Looking ahead and knowing that it will remain high for the next two years, given the climate of deficit reduction and making cuts, then wanting to make reforms, it’s really critical to have an engaged and thoughtful policy debate around this bill and not get tied up, or caught up, into this trend of budget mania where you lose sight [of the issue] and you’re only focused on the numbers and you lose sight of the impact on people and the programs. So, yes, it’s going to be a particularly important reauthorization.

Q: A lot of times food security is addressed within a human rights framework, and I was wondering, how do you see that facilitating, or detracting from, the food security debate?

CG: I mentioned I was in India and they’re talking about it. It depends on how we define it. I’d love it to be a human right and I think it’s an important thing, but I don’t know how we would go about defining that. [For example], in a country like India, [would it be] a right to food? What you would do? In the U.S. I really don’t know. It’s a tricky issue…From my perspective, for the U.S., I don’t know what it would mean.

Q: In our class we talked a lot about Food Sovereignty, which is the ability to produce their own food and be self-sufficient; do you see a problem with SNAP causing people to become dependent on it?     

CG: I guess I would say two things. I’m not a fan of Food Sovereignty because…I would discourage most countries from trying to produce their own food. It’s not a good strategy. I mean, Japan produces next to no food, but they don’t have food security issues. Or, Lichtenstein for that matter doesn’t [produce lots of food]. In other words, I’m an economist…and as an economist I’m definitely a free trade kind of person, so I’m of the thought that countries should not be trying to produce their own food.  Let’s open up markets and then countries can specialize in whatever they want. When we were in India, coming back to that, they were going to open up the country to Wal-Mart and [Tesco] and I was like, this is great! But, they voted that down. In other words, things like that would have been great for the country. Anyway, back to the thing about SNAP – does it promote dependency? No. The average length of time on SNAP is about seven months; it’s a short distance. And, to be honest, even if people did stay on it for years, all the more power to them, there’s a lot of people in our country struggling and if we as a government can help people who are struggling, I have no problem with supporting them. We spend a lot of money on a lot of different things, and it doesn’t bother me. [Plus,] there’s no evidence either that SNAP leads to reductions in labor supply and there’s been a lot of studies looking at – because it was one of the common [perceptions] – that it will make people not work as hard. In terms of whether it creates dependency, it does not and anybody who says that is really detrimental to the dialogue about what SNAP has to be in the United States. We can’t think of it as a program that might lead to declines in labor supply. There are other programs that we could talk about like unemployment insurance, which has a possibility for creating some negative incentives, but SNAP, No.

SM: I think also, there is a big movement around community gardens and people growing their own food. You can use SNAP benefits to purchase seeds, so people have programs encouraging families to grow their own food. I think it doesn’t take into account most peoples’ schedules and demands and access to an actual plot of land to grow their own food. To me it ties up into things like food deserts. It’s all very sexy and a charming story about how we can connect farmers with hungry people and we can solve our own problems within our community. I think it actually, if it were being leveraged as a way into the broader systemic challenges to food security then that would be great, but the conversation tends to stop there and the result is that people come away lacking an understanding of the complexity of the problem and so it actually detracts from that bigger conversation about how to address hunger.

CG: I could not agree more. This is something that comes up all the time. Actually, Sophie’s much more diplomatic than I am. I think this can actually be damaging because, do we expect to make our own computers or bikes? Are we going to move in that direction? We have the most efficient farmers in the world, just like we have the best computer makers, why would we expect people to…to be more diplomatic, I guess if it encourages dialogue – I often times find that community garden people are interested in community gardens and not alleviating food insecurity. It’s not a solution. I hear so much talk about community gardens and things in the press, like “oh, we have this new community garden.” That’s great, but I’d rather see some stories about real ways that we can leverage public policies to address these problems.

SM: I think there’s some evidence that people who are involved in growing their own food then become more aware of what they’re eating, and so that links to better nutrition. So there certainly is a role for [community gardens], but how do you talk about them in such a way that they reflect their relative impact?

CG: I find talking about community gardens as a way of making people more aware of their food, but not as a solution to the hunger crisis.

Q: So it’s fair to say that you think specialization of labor and comparative advantage are things that are working to our advantage; thus, don’t go against them with food sovereignty and community gardens?

CG: Yeah, that’s exactly right, I mean, I’m not just saying this because I’m the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory, there are people in need! We have these amazingly efficient means of producing food in the United States, or the world for that matter.  Brazil is actually producing more soybeans than we are.  But we’ve got that (intensive food production) figured out.

Q: Dealing with these extremely efficient production methods, there are definitely external costs that are often hard to pinpoint, such as nonpoint pollution and things like that.  What kind of economic policies would you advocate for, for things like getting the private market to assume or internalize these externalities and deal with the total social cost of their production?

CG: I guess I have a couple responses.  I think we have to be real careful about how we try to address some of these externalities of food production.  Like I said before, it’s really important to have affordable food available for low-income households. That’s really, really important.  And some of these policies that try to get rid of externalities will drive up food prices, both in the United States and globally. So that would be the first thing: I think we have to have caution about what we pursue. Secondly, it’s not clear to me if other types of farming methods are any better than what we are currently doing.  Take organic.  If you wanted to grow soybeans only organic, the amount of acreage you would have to devote to soybean production would triple or quadruple, which has its own serious environmental damages.  So you have to think about: we have this type of food production system, and what’s the alternative, what are you going to compare it to?  We have to be really careful.  I’m not sure if there’s anything more efficient than what we’re doing now.  And it’s not immediately clear to me that the alternative wouldn’t be more environmentally damaging.  This is why oftentimes locally grown foods is really a bad, bad idea because you’re producing locally grown foods in areas where they should not be grown. So we have to be careful what we’re doing, and secondly we also have to be aware of what’s this alternative system is that you’re comparing it to.  The third issue is, when someone goes to the food store to buy one of those Hungry Man quarter pound TV dinners, the amount of cost of that due to food is pretty small, and so if we’re thinking about changing policies in terms of the cost… I don’t know how you would go about doing that, it probably wouldn’t happen.

Q: So you would say that other productive endeavors, like production of the packaging and plastics, are a lot more environmentally harmful than food production methods, and we should focus on externalities in that realm more?

CG: Ok, I’m definitely coming at this from a very different perspective.  My priority in my research agenda, in my ethical worldview and everything, is addressing determinate consequences of poverty.  That’s first and foremost for me.  Other things may be important to other people: environmental issues and things like this, might be important.  And I’m not saying my personal way is… it’s just my personal way.  The question is always this: what’s this going to do to poor people.  If it’s going to make poor people better off, then I’m fine with it.  If it’s going to make poor people worse off, even if it has advantages to non-poor people, well, let’s rethink this.  Oftentimes poor people are the ones who bear most of the brunt of environmental issues.  Oftentimes there are areas with a lot of environmental degradation that are in poor areas, but when you try to clean those up it hurts the poor areas.

Q: If you define food security as access to healthy, nutritious food, what role do food choices have in food insecurity?  With the SNAP program, people could be buying unhealthy fast food, or they could be buying fresh produce.

CG: SNAP enables people to make better choices than they normally would.  An example I would make is this:  Take me, OK.  I used to work for the USDA, and we got these raises every year, so I put on some weight.  Did people say: “Gundersen’s put on weight, it’s cause he’s got that raise, that’s why he’s put on that weight.”  No, they think, “ah, it’s probably cause he’s just not…” Or, is Bill Gates the largest man in the country? No, he’s not.  By giving people more money, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all of a sudden going to make bad choices.  It’s going to be like me: you give me a little money maybe I’ll eat better.  Same thing with SNAP.  Someone who’s poor—who’s struggling, and you give them some money—is going to make the same type of choices that I make as a relatively well-off person when I get some more money.  They’re going to make wise decisions.   The government didn’t tell me how I should spend my money on food.  So that’s why I’m so much against restricting SNAP purchases, because I find it somewhat patronizing towards poor people that we have to tell them what they can and cannot eat.

SM: I think that it’s an important conversation to have, given the obesity epidemic in our country, but it’s not a poor person’s problem.  So when you talk about solutions, solutions have to look all people.  A couple years ago congress passed a bill to improve nutrition in school meals, largely out of concern for childhood obesity.  They didn’t just improve the nutrition standards for meals going to kids who were getting free and reduced price lunches, they improved them across the board.  So if you want to have a conversation about improving nutrition and reducing obesity, it has to look at, first of all, all consumers, and then look at all different points in the process.  People are doing things to get food manufacturers to come up with healthier products, how they market them, when and where they market them, and that sort of thing.  So I think, as part of the broader dialogue, sure have that conversation, but—one of the challenges of public policy is people like to hone in on one solution—it’s not something you can solve with a silver bullet.  We need to be cautious in how we discuss it so we’re not further stigmatizing the poor.

Q: The University of Chicago has been lauded and disparaged for its highly theoretical, economic approach to many issues.  How do assumptions regarding rationality, information, and competition fit into your economic worldview and your policy of food security?

CG: That’s an interesting question.  Also when I went to graduate school I was interested in radical political economy, but over time… I’m a strait neoclassical, so I’m probably closer to the Chicago style, Chicago school of economics.  When I think about things, I think about people acting rationally: I think that that’s the way most economists think about things.  But the reason I became an economist is because I want to use tools to alleviate poverty.  And I think the best tools to alleviate poverty are those where we assume rationality, and poor people just like non-poor people behave rationally.  Of course there’re all sorts of times when people make fundamental mistakes.  The great recession, the housing bubble: that was people making fundamental mistakes.  And, you know, we all make mistakes with our budgeting, and if I make a mistake with my budgeting, it doesn’t make that much difference, but if a poor person makes a mistake, the impact’s much bigger.  So that’s the way I view things, assuming rationality… I don’t know what else we would assume.

Q: I guess things like perfect information, perfectly competitive markets.  (We clearly don’t have that all the time, information asymmetry)  So are those things big players in the issue of food security for you?

CG: I think economics has addressed many of those…Coming back to the example of food security, there was a push to get a Wal-Mart somewhere in Chicago, and some of the people in the neighborhood were against it.  I would imagine they were probably rich people who were against having a Wal-Mart in their community, whereas this is the classic example of competition not being allowed to manifest itself.  So what happens if you don’t allow Wal-Mart to come in?  Well, food prices are going to be much higher.  One way that we can really decrease food insecurity is allowing for freer movement, so whoever can get food to people the cheapest, that’s who should be allowed to be in these areas.  Economics will tell you that if you want to alleviate poverty and lower food prices, you’ve got to allow competition.  If you don’t allow competition, you’re going to get high food prices.  Poor people… shouldn’t be going to Whole Foods, because it’s too expensive, they shouldn’t be going to farmer’s markets, because it’s too expensive.  That’s why it’s so important to bring the Wal-Mart, the Meyers, and whatever else you have in Chicago.   Economics tells us: if you want to alleviate this problem, increase people’s real income by lowering food prices.

Q: I was wondering if you could talk more about what the National Soybean Research Laboratory does.

CG: We do three main things.  (And most of our funding comes from the Illinois soybean association.)  First of all, we do work on enhancing productivity of farmers, so we try to figure out ways to address problems of weeds, problems of insects and other pests.  The second thing that we do is we try to improve animal and human nutrition.  About 95 percent of all soybeans go to animals, and so we figure out ways that soybeans can be better utilized by, particularly, hogs and chickens.  But probably the most interesting from the perspective of what we’re talking about here is soybeans in respect to human nutrition.  We’re involved in school feeding programs all across the world, trying to help them be more efficient.  In a lot of foreign developing countries, protein malnutrition is a serious problem, so how do we increase protein?  Eating animals is not going to do it; it’s just way too expensive.  Most of the world can’t afford meat, and so soybeans are a great source.  They call it the miracle bean: really really high in protein, and other crucial nutrients.  And so from that standpoint, we try to promote different ways to get soybeans into the diet.  Take Indian food, like naan bread or roti. They don’t have any protein really.  So we have these recipes where we can put soybeans into them.  Or in southern India, where they eat a lot more rice dishes, we can put soybeans into the rice, so it really helps to make it healthier and higher in protein.  We do a lot of developing these recipes to be used overseas.  It’s fun, and it’s something different.  I haven’t been involved in work on food security in developing countries before.