CALL TO ACTION TO ADDRESS FOOD INFRASTRUCTURE IN THE BIDEN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL: Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, lacking 8,704,878 meals per year because families cannot afford them 

Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, includes the city of Scranton, which is birthplace of the sitting president of the United States of America, Joe Biden. Under the Biden Administration, attention and resources have been focused on the need for nutritious food as a key to quality and length of life. But more needs to be done. Did you know that – after netting out all other ways that households might acquire food, including government programs, food banks, and help from friends and family – we found that Lackawanna County is still sorelylackingenough healthful meals to meet the goal of three meals per day? How many meals? Our Meal Deficit Metric model – the first of its kind in the nation – has produced reliable, pinpointed evidence that 167,402 meals are missed each week. That results in 8,704,878 meals per year (12,186,830 pounds of missing and sorely needed food) for Lackawanna families. Our unique Meal Deficit Metric model calculates the unmet food gap at a very low geography after “netting out” (1) government food subsidies such as SNAP and free-or-reduced-price school meals, (2) charitable food provided through pantries and other organizations, and (3) all other ways that households might acquire food, including support from friends and relatives. As regular, nutritious meals are a bridge to a long and productive life, we encourage the Administration to consider including a more strategic approach to eliminating hunger by improving geographic access to healthy food (eliminating food deserts) and by improving financial access to healthy food (supporting households that have adequate access but insufficient resources to afford it).  

Many programs already address these two issues, but are they effective? Are they using high quality data and information? Is it pinpointed to where families actually live? Are programs bogged down by bureaucratic red tape? 

Science and even our own lifeforce as human beings on earth is not static; it keeps moving and evolving. And all movements require a periodic refreshing of methods and action. They beg for a deeper understanding, for a closer look. And they require terminology and communication that is more accurate, enlightened, relatable, and direct. It is time for a refreshed defining of problems and solutions concerning geographic and financial access to healthy food. It is time to finally fix a broken food system.

Many food relief advocates across America use the term “food insecure” to (1) describe all SNAP-qualifying households (which is an income bracket adjusted for household size) as (2) the population that experiences hunger. In our view, this is problematic for many reasons. In our work, we avoid the labels “food insecure” and “food insecurity” and instead use “net missing meals” and “net meal deficit” as more accurate and specific descriptions. For a deeper explanation, view our Wilcox County (Alabama) report or our Ashtabula County (Ohio) report and search for the section New Terminology.

Persistent hunger in the land of plenty is a solvable dilemma. In many respects, “fighting” hunger has become big business, and the idea of winning and moving past the war might not be welcomed by everybody. Scientifically measuring the willpower of society to greatly reduce if not eliminate hunger is not a metric we can develop at our firm. Our aim here is to introduce suggestions for new ways of thinking about hunger, new ways of measuring and understanding hunger, new openings for thoughtful discussions about hunger (in policy circles and around our own kitchen tables), and new and better ways to take meaningful action that is trackable, honest, and transparent. The first step is to get our measures and our language straight. And we are pairing this with reliable, actionable data. Again, to see an example of this type of analysis details about our new terminology and metrics, download from our website two of our latest SOLVE HUNGER research studies conducted at the request of InvestigateTV, which has been reporting on health disparities linked to diet-related disease in persistently vulnerable locations. The two studies are for Ashtabula County in Ohio and Wilcox County in Alabama. Regarding food deserts (geographic access), our firm authored Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, a breakthrough study that popularized the term “Food Desert” nationally in 2006 and encouraged Congressman Bobby Rush to enter “Food Desert” language into the Farm Bill. In large part because of this work, millions of dollars have been invested in underserved areas across the country. Now, 15 years later, our concern is that the effort is not making enough of a measurable difference, despite a considerable amount of taxpayer and foundation money being spent across America on so-called solutions.

Regarding hunger in Lackawanna, if the state of Pennsylvania set the goal of everyone obtaining 3 meals per day, and if all residents of Lackawanna shared the meal loss equally at one time without interruption, it would mean that no one in the county would eat a single meal for two straight weeks. How is this acceptable in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Where are our broad stripes and bright stars in this perilous fight?

Thankfully there are many highly capable, active, and persistent individuals within organizations and also government agencies doing their best – doing some measurable good – within this broken system. Let us look for ways to support them. For example, there are two urgent problems with the current state of the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called Food Stamps): 1) standards are too low and 2) many retailers are not in compliance with even those low standards. This is not the fault of the vast majority of the USDA staff who have substantial expertise and commitment to these issues. They continue to push. But it is Congress that must act to allocate resources to monitor program compliance. Ensuring that SNAP stores are and remain in compliance can be costly. One solution might be to channel compliance through local health departments that regularly inspect, fine, and license food stores. Perhaps these local authorities can set some aspect of compliance parameters, tempering concerns about federal control of local purchasing. Local leaders are the ones on the ground with the most knowledge about local healthy food infrastructure.  

We encourage the Biden Administration to include healthy food infrastructure in its Infrastructure Bill and to engage local agency and organizational leaders in developing practical solutions.

Local leaders in Pennsylvania’s capital, Philadelphia, played a central, historic role in creating and adopting America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, which gave us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And even today, one of Pennsylvania’s current state slogans is Pursue Your Happiness. But this is difficult in communities devoid of healthy food infrastructure. How can we pursue our happiness without the fuel of regular meals?

We are a neutral third-party firm, and wholly owned female business enterprise, that does not engage in politics, political campaigns, or lobbying. The one single thing we “advocate” for is evidence-based data and information to direct policies and limited resources that improve quality and length of life for all and underscore that value of human existence. 

Regarding Lackawanna, in addition to the county total now made public, we have already generated reliable hunger scores (the number of net missing meals, accounting for ALL other ways households might acquire food) for the 181 pinpointed areas that cover every inch of Lackawanna County. Stay tuned..