The Systemic Link Between Race and Hunger

Meals on Wheels Chicago considers many factors when planning for the future of our programs. In an effort to educate the public about our work and the increasing demand for home meal delivery services, we are releasing a series of essays focused on systemic problems that affect seniors and individuals with disabilities. In this first essay we explore the link between race and hunger. We hope highlighting these issues in relation to our mission will encourage our community to advocate for much-needed change. In the meantime, Meals on Wheels Chicago will continue to raise funds for the home meal delivery program, providing our homebound neighbors with the food they need to stay healthy and independent. 

More than 12 percent of those living in the United States suffer from hunger, an issue that affects those in every racial demographic. However, food security disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic households. While 12 percent of American households experience hunger, the USDA reports 22.5 percent of Black households and 18.5 percent of Hispanic households face food insecurity, further revealing economic insecurity that disproportionately impacts people of color.

The issue of hunger is about more than just food itself—the ability to put food on the table, feed seniors, children and working parents alike is the cornerstone to being able to function at home, school and in the world. Hunger affects physical, mental and emotional health, and without secure food sources, it’s difficult to maintain stability.

The ripple effects of poor nutrition

From birth, proper nutrition is essential to living a healthy and full life. Studies show that poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life can cause irreversible damage to brain development, going on to affect education, abilities, and eventually, the ability to earn a living. This compounds the challenges children face while existing in poverty, and can lead to otherwise preventable health issues throughout life.

People of color have a disproportionate representation in poverty rates in the United States—25.4 percent of Native Americans, 20.8 percent of Black households and 17.6 percent of Hispanic households live beneath the poverty line, while 10.1 percent of white households live beneath the poverty line. Among Meals on Wheels Chicago clients, 65% live at or below the poverty line.

65 percent of Meals on Wheels Chicago clients live at or below the poverty line.

Children make up the largest percent of those living in impoverished conditions in the U.S. with 16.2 percent living in poverty. The next largest segment of the population that lives in poverty are seniors. The Supplemental Poverty Measure found 14.1 percent of seniors, 6.9 million individuals 65 or older, live in poverty in the U.S. Without means to earn income, rising housing costs and healthcare, this vulnerable population, made up mostly of people of color, often faces hunger.

Food deserts, unequal opportunities, and the wage gap

Compounding poor health among minorities are the food deserts in traditionally Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Those living in these areas don’t have access to nearby grocery stores that offer fresh produce and nutritional food, forcing them to eat foods that can cause further health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported “African American neighborhoods had access to half as many chain supermarkets as white neighborhoods; Hispanic neighborhoods had access to a third as many,” leaving these vulnerable populations to eat “junk food” rather than nutritious food that white populations typically access easily.

Furthering the chain of poverty, hunger affects school performance, putting individuals at a disadvantage to achieve the good grades and high test scores they need to get through high school, get into college and go on to work in high paying jobs. According to the 2018 Statistical Atlas, 17% of the Chicago population or approximately 310,000 people (25 years of age and older) do not have a high school degree. That effect extends all the way through someone’s senior years, when many are mired in poverty, unable to work and unsure of how they will get their next meal. 

To be sure, hunger affects those of all races, especially as seniors—but hunger is more likely to be an issue for people of color throughout their whole lives, highlighting the racial inequity that plagues the United States. 

It creates a cycle of poverty, racial injustice, unequal educational opportunities and access to food that is directly linked to the wage gap and a person’s ability to find economic success. Hunger, a direct effect of racial inequity, creates lifelong disadvantages that can haunt someone from birth through their final years.

Of the 10,000+ seniors enrolled in the Meals on Wheels Chicago program, 68% self-identify as a minority.

These disadvantages make the work of nonprofit groups like Meals on Wheels invaluable. Without discrimination, Meals on Wheels Chicago provides daily meals to any senior who needs it, giving seniors the food and crucial interaction they need to live out their final years feeling secure about their source of healthy food.

It also gives families peace of mind that their elderly loved ones won’t go without food, and that they are cared for and given small joys, from a hot meal to a visit from their delivery driver. Meals on Wheels Chicago makes sure clients enrolled in the program never go hungry again.

By Anne Bouleanu, Freelance Journalist and MOWC Contributor