The areas along the border between the United States and Mexico are notoriously dangerous, fraught with drugs, trafficking, illegal crossings, run-ins with police, and yes, hunger. That these dangers exist is not news in itself, but a new batch of research released last week sheds light on just how serious one of them—hunger—has become.
In a sweeping, new, 65-page report commissioned and published by the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona, the U.S.-Mexico border is the world’s worst when it comes to food and economic disparity. To begin with, the United States and Mexico are worlds apart economically. With per capita income in the United States ($45,989) almost six times greater than that in Mexico ($8,143), most Americans have at least three times the buying power for food and drink than their neighbors to the South. But those figures refer to the two nations as a whole.
The borderlands, in both countries, feature a far greater economic and nutritional chasm. The report’s authors call the border “a third country altogether” and “a ghostly apparition.” Some of the report’s findings include:
• Border states themselves often rank high in both agricultural production and food insecurity. Texas, for instance, is the nation's second highest producing agricultural state and second highest in household food insecurity. Nearly 20 percent of Texas households experience food insecurity, and 28 percent of Texas children under 18 qualify as food insecure.
• High agricultural output does not mean food security. In Sonora —a Mexican state rich in livestock, produce, grains and seafood—41 percent of households in that region experienced severe food insecurity, while another 34 percent experienced moderate food insecurity. On the U.S. side, the average farmworker logs 42 hours of work per week yet gets paid just $10,000-$14,000 a year.
• Mexico plays an important role in keeping Americans fed. According to the report, some 60 percent of off-season produce consumed in America is exported from Mexico. In Mexico, Walmart is the single largest food retailer, providing more jobs than any transnational corporation. In the United States, some claim that Walmart uses the guise of "food deserts" to "get into our communities and bring about more corporate control of our food system."
• Climate change is drying up the little fertile land along the U.S.-Mexico border, creating an even bleaker future outlook for food insecurity. Land degradation due, in part, to climate change is a problem on both sides of the border, and an increase in drought conditions in these regions (with no end in sight) signals further problems down the road.
Despite these depressing figures, innovation and adaptation is high along the border with regard to its food systems. “Creative individuals, households, communities, non-profits, educational institutions and government agencies all play a part,” the report authors write.
Still, to make things worse, a report earlier this year suggested that the United States exported its obesity epidemic to Mexico in the form of cheap, processed foods that began pouring across the border after the North American Free Trade Agreement of the late 1990s opened up trade between the countries. The report observed that the increase of obesity and overweight Mexicans—a rise of 12 percent between 2000 and 2006—coincides with the implementation of NAFTA.
At the conclusion of the Southwest Center's report, titled “Hungry for Change,” the authors ask for reader feedback on how to build a “healthy, binational food system.” Faith-based hunger organization Bread for the World has for years been active in collecting data and providing solutions to many of the problems outlined in the report. Bread’s annual Hunger Reports contain a glut of data on food, agriculture, and poverty, including data relating to farm workers and immigration. To assist those who are hungry along the U.S.-Mexico border, visit www.bread.org.
What are your ideas for building a “healthy, binational food system” on the U.S.-Mexico border?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter