America’s hidden hungry

November 26, 2008

Nicole Colson looks at the growing ranks of the hungry in the U.S.--and why the crisis is getting worse.

WHEN ORGANIZERS with the Heart of Compassion food bank in Montebello, Calif., planned a food giveaway recently, they decided to keep it low key, advertising it at just a few churches and schools.

When the day of the giveaway arrived, however, they were stunned to find 500 people in line in Montebello Park before dawn, hours before the pantry would open. "By noon, thousands of people stood in the warm November sun," reported the Los Angeles Times. "Those in line hardly spoke, gazing into the park or holding on to restless children."

In all, nearly 5,000 people showed up seeking food that day--more than double the number expected.

Such stories are becoming increasingly common--though you wouldn't know it to judge from the mainstream media. There's plenty of coverage of the economic crisis, of course--but most of the focus is on the chaos on Wall Street and in the financial system.

Meanwhile, the crisis is taking root across the U.S.--and hitting working people hard.

The Freestore Foodbank in Cincinnati set a record this week, with 7,661 people standing in the rain and cold to receive emergency food boxes before Thanksgiving--an increase of 19 percent over the first day of last year's Thanksgiving food distribution, according to WLWT news.

Homeless in America

In Albany, N.Y., one food bank saw the number of people seeking a meal through its breakfast program more than double over the past year.

The desperation is palpable as food pantries are increasingly stretched. Earlier this month, Debbie Santiago, pastor of the Salt and Sea Mission in New York City's Coney Island, cried as she had to turn away more than 80 hungry people--because the mission had run out of food, reported the New York Daily News.

When Anna, a victim of domestic violence and an immigrant with four young children, came to the mission hoping to get something for her kids to eat, she was turned away. "When we don't have food, what does Anna tell her kids?" Santiago asked the Daily News. "I can't bear this. I was praying for a surprise delivery, but it didn't come. I don't think people know what it is to be hungry."

UNFORTUNATELY, SANTIAGO is wrong on this last point. A growing number of Americans do know what it is to be hungry--because they are part of the epidemic of hunger sweeping the richest nation on earth.

What else to read

Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), the largest food bank network in the U.S., has detailed information about hunger in America, including who is affected and the public policies that help cause it.

The USDA's report "Household Food Security in the United States, 2007" is available online.

The Food First Web site also has useful articles and analyses about hunger in the U.S. and around the globe.

For information about hunger around the globe, the International Socialist Review has a special feature on the global food crisis, including Sharon Smith's "The revolt over rising food prices," an eyewitness report on "Haiti's food riots" by Mark Schuller and Hossam El-Hamalawy's "Revolt at Mahalla" on the eruption of class struggle in Egypt in connection with the food crisis.

The media almost never talk about a hunger problem in the U.S. But according to "Household Food Security in the United States 2007," a report released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 11.1 percent of U.S. households--including 28.3 million adults and 12.4 million children, or one in every eight Americans--were "food insecure" during last year.

"Food insecure" is the term the USDA uses to describe households that struggled to provide enough food for all their members due to a lack of food or money.

About one-third of "food insecure" households--11.9 million adults and children--were designated as having "very low food security," meaning that normal eating patterns of some household members were disrupted, or they were forced to skip meals or eat less. Since 2000, the number of those with "very low food security" in the U.S. has risen by more than 40 percent.

The other two-thirds of "food insecure" households were able, according to the report, to "get by" using "a variety of coping strategies, such as eating less varied diets, participating in federal food and nutrition assistance programs, or obtaining emergency food from community food pantries or emergency kitchens."

Despite the fact that adults generally attempt to shield children from hunger--giving up their own meals so that kids don't have to eat less--the USDA report cites an alarming increase in child hunger across the U.S. According to the study, some 691,000 U.S. children went hungry sometime during 2007--50 percent more than the year before.

But even these numbers don't tell the whole story. A closer look at the USDA report shows that even more families are balancing perilously close to the edge of hunger.

For example, more than 15 percent of all households surveyed responded "yes" to the statement that "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." And 12.4 percent of all households reported that at some point during the year "The food that we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more."

The numbers were even worse for minority households and families headed by single mothers. More than 22 percent of Black households, more than 20 percent of Hispanic households, and more than 30 percent of families headed by single mothers experienced hunger in 2007.

AND IF these are the statistics through the end of 2007, the hunger crisis is sure to be much worse now with a further downturn in the economy.

Across the country, food pantries are reporting a spike in the number of people seeking help. According to the Associated Press, "Calls to the Capital Area Food Bank's Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral system in Washington, D.C., increased 248 percent in the past six months, said spokeswoman Kasandra Gunter Robinson. And more than 90 percent of the 163 local pantries and soup kitchens responding to a recent survey from The Greater Boston Food Bank reported an increase in need; most in the 10 to 50 percent range."

The need is so great that many food banks can't keep up. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, about 87 percent of the agencies reported feeding an increased number of people in recent months, and 55 percent said that demand had increased "greatly." Sixty-nine percent of agencies responding to a questionnaire said they couldn't meet the demand.

"As the economy continued to decline in 2008, low-income New Yorkers saw an increase in the price of food, a decrease in jobs and an increase in other expenses such as housing and heat," the coalition said. "Emergency food providers already struggling with the numbers of people requiring their services in 2007 were stretched to the limit in 2008 as they saw funding cuts on the city, state, and federal level."

Food banks are reporting an increase in the number of working families--even, in some cases, those with two incomes--and households the media would previously have described as middle class seeking help.

Spiking food prices at the grocery store are part of the reason, but increasingly, other factors such as spreading layoffs, the foreclosure crisis and the tanking stock market (which have a particular effect on retirees' pensions and 401(k) plans especially) have taken a toll.

For some families, the choice comes down to paying rent or a mortgage, or eating. That includes Betty Gillis, who until recently was herself a volunteer at a food bank.

A pharmacy technician from Whittier, Calif., Gillis had two jobs in order to support her disabled husband, mother-in-law, and college student daughter. But then, according to the Los Angeles Times, her hours were cut because there were no longer enough customers. Her bosses also started making her work weekends--which forced her to quit her second job. Now, she and her family are part of the growing ranks of those who scramble to make ends meet.

As Gillis stood in line this week for groceries at Montebello Park with thousands of others, she told the Los Angeles Times, "My daughter asked me the other day, 'Are we so poor that we have to stand in line for food?' And I said, 'Yeah.'"

As the Times commented:

The scene in Montebello reflected the crisis confronting local food banks struggling to keep up with demand that has surged more than 40 percent since last year, according to Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. New to food lines are middle-class families--including some that until recently earned $70,000 a year.

"We're used to seeing low-income people and seniors on a fixed income coming in. Now we're seeing more and more middle-class people coming in--people who just lost their job, are trying to pay their mortgage, or are tapping into their 401(k) because of the huge financial losses," said Darren Hoffman, a spokesman for the regional food bank.

As Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America (formerly known as America's Second Harvest), the country's largest food bank network, explained:

It's important to note that the USDA numbers...are 2007 figures and do not take into account the unprecedented economic crisis that our country is currently facing. While the numbers reported are tragic, our network typically experiences trends as direct service providers before they are officially reported. We believe that this is just the beginning of a downward trend, and we expect things to get worse before they get better...

While emergency food assistance is vital to helping people who have to make tough choices between food and other basic necessities, it's often times barely enough to make ends meet. We see increases in the number of people in need at the end of the month when our clients have run out of food stamp benefits and spent their meager income on paying necessary bills.

Our food banks are calling us every day, telling us that demand for emergency food is higher than it has ever been in our history. They are serving a significant number of new clients--people who were once their donors, middle class workers who can no longer make ends meet, many of the half-million people who have lost their jobs in just the past two months as unemployment has climbed to 6.5 percent.

Cheryl Jackson, president of the Giving Movement, which runs Minnie's Food Pantry in Plano, Texas, told the Associated Press that the change is a frightening one.

When she opened, she thought she was going to be serving people with "Will Work for Food" signs. Instead, she said, "It's the corporate people. It's the employees that have been laid off. Those are the people who come in more emotionally disturbed than the others. They walk in thinking, 'I never thought I would need to do this.'"

And there's no reason anyone should. The government could take steps right now to ease the crisis--an expansion of unemployment benefits and an increase in the paltry amount that families receive in food stamps, to name just two.

More fundamentally, the scale of America's hidden hunger crisis should make everyone ask how it is that a government that can find billions of dollars each week to spend on the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of billions more on a bailout for Wall Street can't afford to feed its own citizens.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives