February 10, 2010
Hungry in America
More Americans are going hungry in hard times and are increasingly dependent on private charity, according to a new study by Feeding America, a national network of food banks. The study found that 37 million people — roughly one in eight Americans — had sought emergency food assistance from the network last year, a 46 percent increase from 2006.
As the recession and high unemployment take their toll, there are hungry families all across the country: in cities and suburbs, poor, middle class and even supposedly wealthy communities.
At a recent news conference on Long Island — seen as a place of suburban affluence — local charities shared stories of families struggling to stay afloat and being forced to choose among food, housing payments and utility bills. In many cases, it seems food was skimped on because hunger was easier to ignore than threatening letters from unpaid landlords or the gas company.
In the Long Island portion of the Feeding America study, researchers surveyed more than 600 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters and interviewed people who had sought food at those places. The study concluded that about 280,000 Long Islanders needed help last year, a 21 percent increase from 2006. Only a small percentage of these clients were homeless or elderly. Thirty-nine percent were children under 18.
The study found that volunteers are central to the success of emergency feeding programs. On Long Island, 88 percent of food pantries and 92 percent of soup kitchens rely on volunteers. But the news conference revealed that many of the volunteers who collected and served food have become newly hungry and jobless.
It is reassuring that so many Americans are eager to help their neighbors. But it is also clear that the government safety net is failing. The Feeding America study found that about 30 percent of those seeking help from their facilities also received food stamps. This bolsters what advocates for the poor have said for years, that the food stamp program isn’t reaching everyone who is eligible. That must be fixed.