Vogel: Food Insecurity Solutions

Apr 10, 2014

For many Vermonters, the worry about running out of food is a monthly problem. Most families living on food stamps (now called the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP) run out of food by the third or fourth week of every month. There are food shelves and other places they can turn to, but their anxiety about getting enough food takes a heavy toll.

One of my students at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Anson Montgomery, decided to investigate this issue of food insecurity. What he discovered was a strong correlation between food insecurity and people’s health.

Anson and a driver from the Vermont Foodbank spent a day delivering food to individuals and food shelves in southern Vermont. They loaded and unloaded and distributed 15 tons of food that day. In addition to the canned goods, powdered milk, cereal and cheese, the truck carried “free extras” like organic carrots and onions from Kingsbury Farm in Warren. Anson was surprised how hard it was to get people to take the carrots and onions along with their regular box of food. Part of the explanation he heard was that people were looking for “tasty treats.” But a second explanation was that these people were worried about getting enough calories and looked for foods that would simply fill them up.

Anson also spent several days with the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, which serves more than 250,000 meals each year. The organization let him conduct a survey about nutrition. The most interesting finding was the relationship between food security and health. Of those surveyed, people who said they didn’t worry about having enough food reported their health as ‘good’ or ‘excellent.’ Only 5% reported that their health was only ‘fair.’

In contrast, for people who said that they ‘sometimes’ worry about having enough food for their next meal, 43% reported that their health was only ‘fair.’

Clearly the relationship between food insecurity and poor health needs more study, but Anson’s experience indicates that we may not save money when we cut funding for food assistance. Instead we may be just shifting costs from human services to hospitals.

The SNAP benefit is currently $1.33 per person, per meal. One way to improve food security would be to increase the SNAP benefit. Anson thinks another way might be to follow the example of survivalists. Using freeze dried foods, Anson calculated that for about $150, we could provide SNAP recipients with a month’s supply of food. These packets could all be stored in a five gallon container. In an emergency, just adding hot water would produce a nutritious meal.

Low income people have a lot on their minds. It would be nice if they didn’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from.