‘The world’s population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, boosting agricultural demand — in a scenario of modest economic growth — by some 50 percent compared to 2013. Income growth in low- and middle-income countries would hasten a dietary transition towards higher consumption of meat, fruits and vegetables, relative to that of cereals, requiring commensurate shifts in output and adding pressure on natural resources.’

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released a report on the trends and challenges that trouble our global food systems — illuminating the many obstacles that food insecure regions like the San Joaquin Valley must deal with. No region has the same problem preventing them from feeding more of their people: for some areas, the bottleneck may exist as unproductive farms, where simply not enough food circulates from farm to fork. For other communities, an abundance of perfectly healthy and nutritious food goes uneaten and wasted.

We took a look at the report and found 5 key ideas that are relevant to Merced County and our fight against food insecurity:

1. Population growth:

Our county is in the middle of the most productive agricultural economy in the world — yet our community suffers from chronic food insecurity among all age groups. 1 out of 4 children in Merced are obese, and nearly 1 in 3 Merced residents report having trouble finding affordable and healthy food.

While Merced was the epicenter of the American Housing Crisis in 2008, the county’s population has boomed — rising by over 100,000 people since 2000. More and more people are calling Merced home, yet their food system has failed to address their needs.

2. Increasing competition for natural resources:

California’s statewide drought during the last decade impeded our region’s ability to grow food and fiber. With farms clamoring for water, we saw the kind of crushing conditions shifting precipitation patterns make without more effective water storage and more efficient use. Farms were forced to compete with each other and cities for water — tomorrow’s water policy needs to equip agricultural centers with the resources they need to produce food for a growing global — and local — population.

…food safety and quality standards imposed by supermarkets and regulators may lead to the discarding of food that is still safe for human consumption, representing an enormous waste of natural resources.

3. Poverty and income inequality:

Half of Merced residents live below the federal poverty line and must stretch every dollar they earn on transportation, housing, healthcare, and food. Poverty is expensive — not knowing how much money will be left after daily expenses leaves countless families with an impossible question to answer: how much food can we afford this week?

Childhood hunger is a consequence of chronic poverty: if food isn’t supplied by families every day, where do children go to eat?

1 in 3 people are under the age of 18 in Merced County, meaning that they must rely on their parents or schools for a reliable source of nutrition. Schools can only offer so much support and programs like SNAP that help ease the financial burden of feeding a family have very limited success in reaching those they are intended to help — leading many children to overeat cheap, processed fast foods from closeby retail chains or gas stations — contributing to a growing epidemic of obesity in our county.

At least 1 in 4 Merced seniors live with a potentially debilitating conditions like arthritis or back pain. High healthcare costs and the mobility issues that come with age often result in food insecurity. Families are forced to choose between paying the bills and paying for food. Seniors can be stranded without food in the pantry — without the means to help themselves, many go hungry.

4. Migration and agriculture:

…migration is not always successful, especially when urban
areas cannot absorb the migrant population, and the migrants do not have
the capital needed to overcome the financial constraints of migrating abroad.

Most farm labor in California is supplied by migrant workers who struggle to feed their families. Farms don’t harvest year round and the seasonality between different crops often overlap, strict harvest schedules prevent laborers from easily switching from one crop to another. Migrant workers compete with each other for this often temporary work and have trouble providing for their families in between jobs and in between seasons. Excluded from many programs that were designed to prevent this kind of food insecurity, migrant families have few alternatives for food when times get tough.

5. Access to food systems:

Farms are moving farther away from your plate. The food you see at the grocery store travels through a complex system of processors and distributors before it ends up in your cart.

Demands for time and attention have taken people away from their kitchens and into drive-thrus and corner stores, where fast cheap food can be easily found. Fast food chains have stepped in as the chief suppliers of accessible meals. Name brands are encountered along main streets and downtown corridors, and they ultimately serve a processed, unhealthy, and synthetic diet to return customers. Most of Merced County’s health problems stem from preventable, diet related illnesses: heart disease ranks among the leading causes of death here.

Sometimes, the wider availability of processed food leads to higher food consumption and greater dietary diversity. In other cases, low-income populations find it more difficult to adopt high-quality diets and are more likely to consume ‘empty calories’.