It’s hard to imagine. In America, one in six people struggle with hunger.
Hunger here doesn’t look like hunger in Central Africa, the Andes or the Near East. Rather, it pervades everyday life and generally goes unnoticed.
But the faces and situations of the hungry exist all around us – in the kindergartener who can’t focus on lessons, in the elderly man or woman who goes to the pharmacy and realizes that an unexpected rise in medication costs means a choice between prescriptions or food, or in the family at the grocery store who can no longer afford basics such as milk and meat.
In America, hunger is a hidden problem. But the secret can’t be kept too much longer; 49 million people struggle with hunger.
The USDA defines hunger as “low food insecurity.” The language blunts the severity. Hunger, or domestic hunger, presents itself as a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy life. It may mean that individuals and families wonder where the next meal will come from and, most poignantly, how they can afford the groceries necessary to feed their children.
Hunger prevalence in the United States has steadily risen since 2006. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate is up to 14.3 percent, reflecting the third annual increase in the number of people living at or below the poverty level. Increasing costs of fuel and food make it extremely difficult for working class families to manage their budgets and even afford basic necessities.
Since 2007, there has been a documented and dramatic rise in the number of requests for food assistance, according to reports from food banks and charitable feeding programs throughout the nation.
Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization, quantified the significant increase in the number of people they serve in Hunger in America 2010. Through an extensive study that captured people’s use of emergency food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters served by the network of food banks, researchers found that 37 million people had sought food assistance in 2009, an alarming 12 million-person increase since the same study was undertaken in 2006. A more startling finding of the research is that of the individuals served by Feeding America food banks, nearly 14 million are children – a 50 percent increase over the number of children served in 2006.
The number of people in need of food assistance is growing. As communities struggle through economic recovery, high unemployment rates and record home foreclosures, more and more people are finding themselves in need of food assistance for the first time.
“You’re going along fine, everything is working for your family, and then all of a sudden, things change,” says Patricia, a client of the North Texas Food Bank in Dallas.
At one time, she and her husband enjoyed a combined annual income of $80,000 a year through her salary as a school district secretary and his earnings in construction. But construction work became scarce as the real estate market crashed. Their situation became more complicated when the couple became the legal guardians of their two pre-teen grandchildren. Patricia was struggling to feed four people on $40,000, but the income amount prevented the family from receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps). Patricia had to turn to her local food pantry for help. The decision wasn’t easy for the grandmother, who said, “It’s hard trying to tell people…you are just trying to put food on the table for your grandkids.”
But this isn’t a unique story. Patricia’s family is but one of millions of American families struggling with bills and, in turn, hunger. The Feeding America food bank network has recently served nearly 5.6 million households, compared to 3.7 million in 2006.
HELP FOR THE MOST VULNERABLE
Today, nearly 17 million children are “food insecure.” Studies show that hunger affects a child’s physical, cognitive and behavioral development. From birth to age 3, chronic under-nutrition is most harmful because proper nourishment is essential to support this critical period of rapid growth.
Hunger also affects a child’s ability to learn and perform well at school. Children who experience hunger come to school ill-prepared to learn, are more likely to have trouble focusing in class, and may struggle with complex social interactions and adapt less effectively to environmental stress.
Luz, a single mother raising seven children in a vibrant town southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico recently began receiving the benefits of their local food bank. Her youngest children, 11-year-old Jenison and 9-year-old Yadiel, were approached by their school to participate in the Banco de Alimento’s BackPack Program.
Since then, Luz has seen that weekly roller bags full of cereal, shelf-stable milk, juice, and snack bars offer nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals and provide a great way for the young boys to feed themselves over the weekends, and at other times when school is out.
HUNGER IN THE LATINO POPULATION
Another vulnerable group experiencing high-rates of food insecurity is America’s Latino population. Though dismaying, the 25 percent increase in the number of African-American adult clients and a 43 percent increase in Caucasian adult clients reported in Hunger in America 2010 was unsurprising, given the anecdotal reports of increased need for food assistance across the country. What did come as a shock was the 66 percent increase in the number of Latino adult clients who rely on the Feeding America food bank services to feed themselves and their families. New findings by the Urban Institute, based on Hunger in America 2010 data, show that Latino children depend heavily on emergency food assistance: one in three is currently receiving food assistance through Feeding America food banks.
New clients Angel, Fernanda, and their three young children had to turn to an agency of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank last October when Angel’s salary as a math teacher was cut. “We live in a nice neighborhood,” says Fernanda, “and we never thought we would have to turn to a pantry. But knowing we can get two or three weeks of food really helps.”
The rise in Latino hunger figures parallels recent census data showing that the recession caused the greatest decreases to Latino household incomes. The Latino unemployment rate increased to 13.1 percent in May 2009, up from 4.9 percent in May 2006. The May 2009 rate was three percentage points higher than the national average at the time.
Latino families utilizing emergency food assistance reported that they are also less likely to participate in or even seek assistance from federal safety-net programs like SNAP. The lack of program participation also causes low-income Latino communities to lose out on the benefits that SNAP dollars bring to local economies.
The federal safety-net programs designed to keep people from going hungry are underutilized across all low-income populations. Food banks attribute this lack of participation to a range of reasons: from a mistrust of government agencies, to the difficult application processes, and to a lack of access to the programs. Hunger in America 2010 found that only six million client households report participating in SNAP, yet almost seven million more may be eligible. The same applies to child nutrition programs – nearly 20 million school children received free and reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program, yet only two million receive the same lunches during the summer.
RESEARCH GUIDES RESPONSE
Feeding America has increased service to feed the additional 12 million people seeking assistance, but the need far outpaces the charity’s available resources. Between the 49 million people at risk of hunger and the 37 million who receive assistance through the Feeding America network, millions of men, women and children are still falling through the cracks.
Despite the glimmer of economic recovery, millions of people in this country are still unsure how they will get their next meal. Domestic hunger research helps organizations like Feeding America develop tailored programs and services that effectively address the needs of America’s hungry. It also offers the anti-hunger community a platform for dialogue about the nation’s response to hunger, and direction for action needed to alleviate it. As a result, thoughtful partnerships between federal and state governments, corporations and hunger-relief organizations can be cultivated to bring more food and funds into the charitable distribution system and to connect people with programs that provide food to people in need.
“To address the problem of hunger, we must understand our clients – who they are, and why they need our services,” says Emily Engelhard, director of social policy research and analysis at Feeding America. “This knowledge is critical if we are going fulfill our mission of ending hunger.”
Feeding America provides low-income individuals and families with the fuel to survive and even thrive. As the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, its network members supply food to 37 million Americans each year, including nearly 14 million children and three million seniors. Serving the entire United States, more than 200 member food banks support 61,000 agencies that address hunger in all forms. To learn more about the organization, visit www.feedingamerica.org or find it on Facebook at facebook.com/FeedingAmerica.