This lesson examines the recent dramatic spikes in food prices in the United States, and abroad, and how that impacts those who lack food security in America. The lesson encourages students to examine the causes and effects of rising food costs, and consider the impact the rising prices can have on those who can feed their families, but are struggling financially in other areas on their quest to do so. The lesson also asks students to consider how the demand for certain ingredients, such as corn, can increase and impact the prices of many products made from that ingredient, including biofuel.
What was once defined as “hunger” in America is now described as food insecurity. In 2006, the United States started measuring how many households changed their eating patterns due to a lack of access to food, or a change in their ability to access resources that used to acquire food, using this term.
While hunger is defined by Merriam-Webster as a craving or an urgent need for food or a specific nutrient, the term food insecurity addresses not just the feeling of hunger but the states of being without food, and consequences such as eating less than one feels they should, going a day without eating, skipping meals, and being unable to afford a balanced meal (leading to less nutritious choices). Those who were food secure spent 27% more on food than in the past, according to a study released in September 2001. In 2010, 9.8 % of households with children were food insecure.
One copy of the budget worksheet (included) for each group of 2 students.
Computer with an Internet Connection to review maps, videos and articles online.
- Why Are Food Prices Rising So Fast? http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/why-are-food-prices-rising-so-fast
- Labels Describing the Ranges of Food Security: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/FoodSecurity/labels.htm
- NewsHour Video on Food Insecurity: http://video.pbs.org/video/2164246291
- NewsHour Video with transcript, on the news that 1 in 15 Americans are the “Poorest of the Poor”: http://video.pbs.org/video/2164246291
Take a moment to review the chart on:
Notice the labels in each area, and consider what happens as expenses and demands increase, so families move towards a lower level of food security.
Create a list, with the class, of characteristics (or consequences) of not having enough food, or not knowing when your next meal will be.
Some possible answers include:
- Lack of attention in school
- Weight loss
- Eating less nutritious food because nutritious food is not available
- Eating less because another family would benefit more from the nutritious food or larger portion
Discuss what happens to those who do have food, but spend more on that food. Assuming a household consists of one adult who is employed, and 2 children, ask students to calculate this household budget for one month, on the budget worksheet:
Income monthly: $3000
Rent/mortgage: $1100 for a home with 3 bedrooms, and 2 bathrooms.
Car payment: $300
Medical expenses: $150
Car expenses (parking, fuel, tolls, insurance): $110
Cable, Internet, and cell phones, subscriptions: $150
Clothing for children, work: $200
Entertainment (movies, gifts for birthdays, class trips): $75
Groceries: $600 ($150/week)
How much money is leftover each month? What, if anything, can be purchased with this money?
What items in this budget could be eliminated if behaviors or habits changed?
For example, families could spend less on clothes, or turn down invitations to parties and play dates at the movies. Families don’t have a great deal of control over car expenses, if they have to pay tolls to get to work, though.
Discuss the items that a family could change over time, like looking for a less expensive apartment or home, replacing appliances with those that require less energy, but larger changes take time and often come with an added expense, such as paying taxes on a new home or car, even if it is not very expensive. If a family has less than perfect credit, they may not be able to afford a high interest rate on a car loan for more fuel-efficient car. People with less than excellent credit scores may be require larger down payments on large purchases, or may have higher monthly payments on items like cars, because they are lent money only at higher interest rates. These are among the reasons people feel “stuck” or “trapped” during challenging economic times.
Examine the food budget, specifically. What would happen if the budget required that the family pay almost 30% more for $600 worth of food next month? Calculate that expense ($600 times 1.30), and record this on the budget sheet. If the last budget left this family with $15 to manage or use for “unexpected expenses” monthly, how far over-budget is the family that has an increase in their grocery bill that was not expected? Remind students that the World Food Programme published that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, also known as the FAO, quotes the price of a basket of basic foods is actually 37% higher than it was a year ago, but since the prices of foods in a shopping cart vary, for this exercise 30% is the increase being used.
Have students read about the increases in the cost of food in the fall of 2011.
Why Are Food Prices Rising So Fast?
Consider that when the prices of foods like corn and wheat go up, it is not just the price of those items that increase, it is the price of every item make with these basic ingredients.
- The price of ketchup made with corn syrup increases.
- The price of cereal increases.
- Multi-grain waffles may contain corn meal, so the price to produce these foods is also greater.
- Popular foods like frozen lasagna, pizza, fruit punch and even crackers become more costly.
A subtle way manufacturers manage the rising costs without losing customers to “sticker shock” is to avoid making the products more expensive, so they will sell smaller portions for the same price. The family is literally getting less for the same amount of money. If they eat the same sized portions, they will simply have to but these foods more frequently, which still runs up their monthly budget. The cost of the business of producing foods gets greater as drought, famine, and rising fuel prices overseas impact both supply and the expense of transporting foods, which increases demand. For more information, review:
- Making sense of food price volatility.
- The use of biofuels to offset the dependence on oil in a volatile market, as the population increases, means that resources like sugar and maize (corn) are being used to produce fuel instead of food, according to The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/18200668
Break the class into pairs, and have the teams calculate new budgets that accommodate a dramatic increase in the food expenses. Anticipate that the family would need about $750 for food.
Students should be prepared to justify how the family will cope with the changes to the other parts of their budget. The teams will present their budgets to the class.
They will be successful if:
- The students demonstrate an understanding of items in the budget that have flexibility each month, and which do not.
- The students provide evidence that they considered the challenges that some of the cuts have on family life.
- The students demonstrated an understanding of expenses that are job-related.
- The students considered a creative alternative to minimize any of the expenses.
Have each team present their proposed budget to the class and after each has been presented, have students praise or critique the work of their classmates. Are the solutions feasible, like watching movies online, instead of going to movies, or are they far-fetched, like earning more money by becoming professional athletes in a month?
Keep in mind that the budget with which we worked was for a family that earns $36,000 per year. The newest data (November, 2011) states that household incomes are falling, due to issues such as the great recession, the housing crisis and slow down of construction, so more families (49 million) are living at or below the poverty line (at or near an income of $24,343 per year for a family of 4, factoring in benefits such as food stamps). More suburban communities are dealing with poverty in a way that they haven’t in the recent past. The data states that 1 in 15 Americans live with an income of $11,157 for a family of 4, knows as extreme poverty. This is just more than 30% of the budget the class created. Another way to think of that budget is less than $1000 per month, for 4 people. What would happen to the family associated with your budget if it were only 2/3 the money? What about 1/3?
View the video clip at: http://video.pbs.org/video/2164246291 for more information. The video lasts just over seven minutes.
The nine-minute video at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec11/poverty_11-07.html discusses the increase in the number of Americans are who living in poverty, which also discusses food insecurity and the stresses and anxiety associated with these issues related to poverty (education, transportation, illness…).
While food insecurity is impacting more Americans than in recent history, famine, weather conditions, diminishing natural resources, and political unrest around the world impact America’s food supply and can the increase in demand for both food and products made from food products such as biofuel. Teachers may consider hosting an event called a “hunger banquet”, which is an interactive experience designed by Oxfam America, to show students how the disparities in wealth and an unequal distribution of resources across the world and have an impact on one person. The Oxfam America site offers free supplies and downloadable toolkits for teachers. This activity would require at least one class period, aside from the lesson.
Look at the link between poverty and obesity in the United States. How can Americans have greater food insecurity and while 60% of the population is overweight?
Direct students to the map from the World Health Organization: http://gamapserver.who.int/mapLibrary/Files/Maps/Global_Overweight_BothSexes_2008.png
Review the PBS NEWSHOUR Blog entry, The Socio-Economic Significance of Food Deserts. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/06/the-socio-economic-significance-of-food-deserts.html
Ask students to read the article and consider the daily impact of living in a “food desert” on one’s health. If a family did not have a car, or the one car was being used to take on family member to work, and there was no supermarket with fresh fruits and vegetables within walking distance, what would fill the pantry? If there are 3 fast food restaurants selling menu items for $1 nearby, and due to fuel costs and the high rent a small grocer pays to keep a store open, supplies for a healthy dinner are twice as expensive as buying burgers for everyone in the house, what choice would a family living on $24,000 a year make? What about a family living on $12,000 a year?
After examining the facts, revisit the budget created and assume that at least one member of the family has diabetes. What happens to the budget for medical expenses? As that line item increases, what happens to the food budget? The Patchwork Nation site has a thorough description of the connection between health and socio-economics related to diabetes: http://www.patchworknation.org/content/diabetes-data-reflect-health-income-and-socio-economic-divides, but remember that this data is from 2008, before the most recent census polls further defined how many Americans were living in poverty and managing food security at current levels.