Hunger is a Problem. Let’s End It.

“…Although my father worked full-time we needed the food bank in order to stretch out the food we were able to afford. With four children ranging in age from two months to 10 years, there was a lot of stretching to do. We did experience a season of “middle class” but with my father’s death in 1998 we plunged back to low income. Once again, food, one of the most basic needs, was not always accessible to us.” – United Way of King County Hunger Relief Now! Plan, 2009

Hunger is not uncommon in the United States.  It is very often invisible – there are no Sally Struthers infomercials highlighting food insecurity in Detroit, Springfield, or any other American community – but it’s not uncommon.  One in six Americans struggle with hunger day in and day out.  One in  four children are hungry.  These are staggering numbers.  How did we come to it?

Poverty.  The wrenching choice between housing, utilities, transportation, and food.  Food is often last on that list because the cost is malleable.  There are fixed costs and dates for other priorities.  Rent has to be paid as do utilities, and transportation is needed to get back and forth from work.  Food can go unpurchased or be rationed.  Low-income families often “choose” to go without or with less food, but it’s not a choice.  They are just playing the hand they’ve been dealt.

35 million Americans are hungry.  The fastest growing group are the working poor.  They’re working multiple low wage jobs to keep a roof over their heads and the power on.  They still can’t make enough to cover all of their expenses.  These families are not hungry by choice or through a series of bad decisions. They are hungry by circumstance.  Like many who have been forced from their homes due to job loss or unexpected medical bills, people become “food insecure” despite doing everything right.

Hunger affects the most vulnerable of our neighbors.  Infants from hungry households are more likely to suffer from low birth weight and defects such as spina bifida.  Children from these households will be sick more often, miss more school and are more likely to be held back.  They also engage in more anti-social behavior and are obese at higher rates.  Hungry adults generally require more care for chronic conditions and will show diminished productivity at work.  Food insecure seniors find their stays at the hospital will be longer, disabilities will be greater, and the quality of their health and life is diminished.

This is crisis for our communities.  A comprehensive 2007 study showed that the we pay$90 billion dollars annually due to the effects of food insecurity.  Hunger is not uncommon and it’s costly.  But we can end it.  We produce more than enough food to do so.  Hunger is not about food, it’s about access to food.

For the past 40 years we have fought hunger through a mix of large federal programs, state programs, and local efforts.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, better known colloquially as food stamps, along with school breakfast and lunch, and the WIC program has been the main federal response since the late 1968.  SNAP and it’s state counterparts (in Washington it’s “Basic Food”) are large and complex and reach a lot of people.  But not everyone .  For a myriad of reasons including lack of knowledge, difficulty navigating the systems, and the stigmas attached to using “food stamps” reduce participation.  The exact numbers vary but large percentages of eligible families do not utilize these programs.

Local efforts are mainly found through the “emergency food system” (e.g. -food banks and meal programs).  Over the past decade, and especially since the recession hit in 2008, the emergency food system has become less emergency and more regular for many people.  Food banks are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the growing demand.  As the need has grown with the recession, food prices have risen and donations have dropped.

School’s are also bearing the brunt of our hunger problem.  Millions of schoolchildren receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch.  These are vital programs because a hungry child can’t learn.  Unfortunately, districts are finding families that only qualify for reduced lunch have a hard time making up the difference.  This has always been true, but it is more pronounced at the effects of the recession continue and budgets are cut.  School districts are scrambling to find a way to pay for the unpaid lunch bills.

If we are creative we can strengthen these and other programs and innovate where we need to.  We must increase outreach to those most likely to be eligible for SNAP and other state programs.  In addition we should support school districts seeking to create dinner programs for students and help communities find ways to increase participation in summer meals programs.  We can pressure the government to increase SNAP benefits, which are based on out-dated estimate that was declared inadequate when it was developed during the depression.  No one wants hunger or poverty (which uses a flawed measure as well) to go up on their watch, but we need a proper accounting of who is hungry to tackle this crisis.

Finally, we can all tap into our inner Sally Struthers and increase awareness about hunger in the United States.  The United Way of King County is hosting Hunger Action Week March 21-25.  Five ways in five days to put a fork in hunger.  Step number one is to take the Hunger Challenge and then write about your experience.  The maximum food benefit in Washington for an individual is seven dollars per day.  Can you live on $49 for the week and follow these rules?:

  • Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner spending only $7 per day.
  • Salt and pepper don’t count but all other seasonings, cooking oils, condiments, snacks, drinks, and everything else do.
  • Don’t use food you already own.
  • Don’t accept food from family, friends, coworkers and others. Not even the free samples from Costco!

Hunger is solvable.  It will take money.  But more than money, it will take awareness and action.  We need to spread the knowledge that hunger is a present and debilitating condition for too many Americans.  We need to spread the word that there are programs that can help people.  We need to find a way to reduce the complexity of utilizing these programs.  We need to scream at the top of our lungs when our elected officials using the poor and hungry as bargaining chips.

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