Ending hunger is more cost-efficient than allowing it to exist

In Maine, 12.3 percent of households – approximately 157,891 people – do not get enough to eat. In the United States as a whole, 35 million people are considered “food- insecure.”

When people are food-insecure, they reduce their portion sizes to feed their children, avoid purchasing fresh, but more expensive, produce at the grocery store, or line up at one of Maine’s many food pantries.

In the worst cases, people living in food-insecure households send their children to bed hungry. Food insecurity has devastating consequences for individuals and families in Maine, but when people living in our communities don’t have enough to eat, there are severe economic costs that affect everyone.

In a study released June 5, experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and Brandeis University announced that hunger costs the United States at least $90 billion annually. The health care and emergency feeding programs for hungry people are expensive. Furthermore, when people are hungry, their economic productivity as workers declines.

In general, hungry people are three times more likely to suffer from poor health status than those who come from food secure households. They are 1.3 times more likely to require hospitalization, about twice as likely to suffer from stomachaches and headaches, and three-and-a-half times more likely to be depressed than those with enough to eat.

Treating these illnesses costs Maine about $294 million every year, while hunger-related illnesses cost the United States $66.8 billion annually.

Children who come from food-insecure households are 1.4 times more likely to repeat a grade. In their adult years, hungry children face greater likelihood of limited employability, lessened workforce productivity, and poorer job performance. The diminished educational progress and lower workforce productivity of hungry citizens costs Maine $40.4 million every year, and the United States $9.2 billion.

Charity work to feed low-income families also costs money. Charity initiatives to feed the hungry represent an economic investment of $14.5 billion every year by the U.S., and probably about $64 million in Maine. The overhead expenses, volunteer hours, transportation costs, and additional money used to fight hunger could go towards other socially productive ends.

Taken as a whole, problems relating to hunger cost each American about $300 a year, or about $22,000 over their lifetime. In Maine, hunger costs us about $396 million every year. As a nation, we pay more than $90 billion annually to let people go hungry.

But we have an opportunity to change this.

The federal Farm Bill is up for reauthorization. Part of the bill includes the federal nutrition initiatives, like food stamps, school lunches and elderly feeding programs. By strengthening these programs, we could virtually end hunger. These programs help children, people who have fallen on hard times, and the working poor.

Leading national hunger organizations and scholars estimate that channeling an additional $10 billion-$12 billion into these programs would be enough to ensure every resident of Maine and the United States gets enough to eat.

This money is available, not through taxpayer dollars, but from being shifted from large, corporate farm subsidies to programs to end hunger. If Congress increases funding for these programs, it would be more cost-effective than our state and nation continuing to mount expensive charitable efforts against hunger, foot its related health care bills, and watch hungry students turn into unproductive adults.

Our nation pays far more by letting hunger exist, than it would if we took steps to eliminate it. If Maine, and the United States, prioritize ending hunger, there will be economic gains for everyone.

Amy Ahearn, a senior at Bowdoin College, is an intern with the Partners in Ending Hunger.