Visualizing Food Security

Visualizing Food Security
Food Insecurity, Obesity, SNAP Participation and Poverty
Cause Shift


Former president Bill Clinton—famous for his McDonald’s predilection—is these days cutting a much svelter profile, thanks to a new plant-based diet. “I live on beans, legumes, vegetables fruit.” he recently told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I drink a protein supplement every morning. No dairy—I drink an almond milk mixed in with a protein powder.”

In 2004, Clinton underwent quadruple bypass surgery, but soon after, his coronary arteries began to re-clog. So in prototypical fashion, the former Rhodes scholar dove into research on lipids and cholesterol metabolism, heart disease, and diet; he discovered intriguing—albeit still controversial—evidence that plant-based diets can begin to reverse the effects of living more like, say, Ben Franklin than Dean Ornish. Reasoning that he had to shed weight for Chelsea’s wedding anyway, Clinton decided to turn himself into a human guinea pig. Several months into the experiment, the program seems to be working, and “Bubba” has since shed 24 pounds.

Whether or not the science behind Clinton’s austere form of veganism ultimately stands up to scrutiny, decades of research point to links between diets rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and a variety of health benefits—lower cholesterol, reduced rates of diabetes, colon and ovarian cancer, and, yes, trimmer waistlines. And yet, despite this evidence, Americans continue to consume vast amounts of meat, and foods laden sugar, salt and fat.

The unsurprising fallout? Americans are getting fatter. A survey conducted earlier this year by Gallup found that 63.1 percent if adults in the US were either overweight or obese in 2009 (36.6% overweight and 26.5% obese). Last week, the OECD published its first ever obesity forecast—projecting that 3 out of every 4 Americans will be overweight or obese by 2020.

Yet in an odd juxtaposition, hunger too is on the rise in America, despite decades of government programs and private outreach. According to the most recent figures, over 49 million Americans suffer from insufficient food. Of these,17 million are children, prompting President Obama earlier this year to challenge our nation to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Undernutrition and overnutrition may seem like strange bedfellows. But rising hunger and obesity rates find common roots in a third rising trend: poverty.

According to data released this month by the US Census Bureau, 2009 saw more poor people in America than at any previous point in the past 15 years. Some 44 million live below the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four. That amounts to roughly one in seven people; and more than one in five children.

While the links between hunger and poverty are fairly obvious, it may be surprising that obesity, too, is wrapped up in a common set of circumstances. The connections, however, become clearer when we think about them as different manifestations of a “food security” problem.

The Five "A's" of Food Security

  • Availability - Is there enough food?  For everyone?  At all times?
  • Accessibility - Can you get to the food?  Can the food get to you?  Can you afford it?
  • Acceptability - Is the food and the system of delivery culturally acceptable and appropriate?
  • Adequacy - Is the food adequately nutritious?  Is it safe to eat?  How sustainable is the food supply?  How about the sources? Action - If any of the previous four elements are not being met, is there a policy and procedure in place for you to take steps to change that situation?

In contrast to many parts of the developing world, food availability is rarely a problem in the US: our farms produce plenty and our grocery stores shelves are fully stocked. However, the 4 A’s beneath “availability” are where problems arise, and where we can begin to see how poverty spawns both hunger and obesity.

Extreme lack of access to food, for example, begets hunger and undernutrition. Lack of access to adequate food—i.e., the fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains that helped the former president slim down—results instead in obesity. In many inner cities, the well-known “food desert” phenomenon makes the stuff of urban myth disturbingly true: It is often easier to acquire a handgun than a piece of fresh fruit.

When access to healthy food is less of an issue — with Whole Foods popping up catty corner from the projects, for example — prices are often the prohibitive factor. Two hundred calories of baby carrots, for instance, costs about $2.50, while a 200 calorie donut costs about 23 cents. A bag of bell peppers runs about $3, while a bag of pepper-and-salt potato chips — with the same calories — costs roughly 1/10 of that. Still, even the cheapest of calories are beyond the reach of many. If low income can lead to obesity, even lower income—or none at all—inevitably leads to hunger.

This graphic exemplifies how visualizations can help us begin to draw these types of connections, and to see the overlap amongst seemingly disparate phenomena. Created by JESS3, an interactive branding and visualization firm and Cause Shift, a strategic consultancy, it plots rates of obesity, food insecurity, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) participation and poverty in the 50 states.

As the visualization makes clear, states with high levels of food insecurity also have high rates of obesity. In addition, 14 states have both higher than the national average rate of food insecurity and obesity. It also suggests that the current levels of SNAP participation—better known as foodstamps—are not high enough to keep food insecurity or obesity at low levels (see Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, Kentucky or Kansas, for example)

Correlation, of course, doesn’t imply causation. This infographic can’t tell us why obesity and hunger are linked — or how strong the linkages are. Yet by enabling us to see data in a new context, it can spur new hypotheses about their relationships, and, in turn, catalyze new solutions.

Bill Clinton, for his part, is certainly not blind to the privileged status that enables him to now choose rabbit food over ramen. His Clinton Global Initiative has drawn millions of dollars in commitments from organizations—ranging from the Majora Carter Group to Blue Cross/ Blue Shield to the—to help combat the nested problems of poverty and food security. Vizualizations like these, we believe, will lend further credence to those efforts, and inspire further action on a problem that, for now, only grows larger.

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