Food is one of the most basic needs of every person. From five-star dining to takeout, we build our lives around meals, but what happens to those Americans who can’t afford to feed themselves – even in the most prosperous nation?
According to a new report, forty-six million Americans (one in seven) receive food assistance through a network of food pantry and meal service programs called Feeding America. That translates into 5.4 million individuals each week and an estimated 15.5 million households served by the network each year.
The hardest hit by are those who sacrifice the most for our nation: military families. A quarter of military families (620,000 households) need the assistance of others to feed their families.
The picture of those relying on help to feed their families is not quite what you might think. The overwhelming majority (93 percent) reside in non-temporary housing. These are not homeless or transient people, but those who have a stable living situation. Over half of households (54 percent) report that at least one household member has been employed over the past year.
Life for hungry households is full of challenging tradeoffs and not comforts or conveniences but real needs. Nearly 70 percent of hungry people choose between food and utilities, 66 percent had to choose between food and medical care, and just shy of one third chose between food and education. The last trade-off is especially troubling, because education is a key path out of financial hardship.
The Administration wants us to believe that the economy is back on track but for millions of Americans, there is no recovery at all. For these people, the Dow Jones climbing over 16,000 and the unemployment rate dropping to under six percent has yet to deliver any impact on their ability to feed their families and that’s a problem.
"The results are alarming," says Bob Aiken, chief executive officer of Feeding America. "It means that people in America have to make trade-offs. They have to pick between buying food for their children or paying for utilities, rent and medicine."
"Hunger exists in literally every county in America," Aiken says. "It's an urban problem, it's a suburban problem, and it's a rural problem."
Linda Patterson, executive director of Lorton Community Action Center, says stereotypes of the people who need food assistance are misleading.
"The people who come here are hard workers. They are employed. They are the school bus drivers, the lab techs in doctors offices, receptionists, the janitors who clean the floor of your children's school," Patterson says. "They just can't make ends meet because some kind of crisis has hit them."
When we consider the changing demographics of those who are hungry in America, it erases past stereotypes and reinforces the need for a new strategy.
It will take something other than throwing public dollars at the problem and hoping it goes away (i.e. the War on Poverty). That battle plan failed to win the war.
The best way to address hunger is a thriving economy which provides decent jobs. The worst way is to merely expand public sector assistance that can become not a safety net for families in need but a permanent trap.
As Feeding America concludes, this is a fight for the private and public sector to put their hands together. Our social safety net is not just about government action, but even more private philanthropy that allows services providers to deliver targeted help to those who need it.
This is a subject we take on in an up-coming book, Lean Together: An Agenda for Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, And More Opportunity for Women, due out this September 2014. In a chapter on entitlement reform, we explain that our nation needs smart reforms that support the private sector to expand the aid it brings, trim the waste and duplication of public sector entitlements, and empowers individuals to own their own future in a way that retains their dignity.
Hunger in America should not still be a growing problem but a receding fragment of the past.