While families across the country gather around the dinner table during this holiday season, there is a different, far less cheery scenario playing out for millions of other Americans. They’re the ones who go hungry, and for whom food — and enough of it — is a daily struggle. According to Feeding America, more than 42 million people now suffer from hunger throughout the nation.
In the midst of a recovering economy, low unemployment and nearly nonexistent inflation, the fact remains that nearly 1 in 7 Americans still goes to bed hungry each night. According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15.8 million U.S. households — that’s 12.7 percent of the total — didn’t have enough food to eat at some point last year, the latest period for which numbers are available.
That’s a tick down from the 14 percent of households that didn’t have adequate food (or what the USDA defines as “food insecure”) in 2014, but the numbers are still higher than where they were just a decade ago. Adding to the crisis is the fact that by the end of this year, up to 1 million Americans will have lost food-stamp benefits because of changes in the law that affect eligibility.
Statistics tell the story. Last year the government doled out $74 billion in food-assistance benefits — about double the level of 2008. According to experts, hunger remains a persistent problem because millions of Americans are struggling financially as the result of the crash, and many remain unemployed. A whopping 95 million Americans are now not in the workforce, according to the November jobs report. While many are retirees, a skills gap and other factors are exacerbating the trend.
As a result, food banks, soup kitchens, churches and other emergency food providers across the country say they’re seeing greater demand than ever. Perhaps more disturbing: An increasing number of working-poor families and the elderly are using these emergency services.
“There’s still this idea that food banks and soup kitchens are only for the homeless, and that simply is not the case,” said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, one of the largest and most active food banks in the country. “In fact, many people are pretty much relying on these resources so that they don’t wind up homeless.”
Among the most vulnerable in this climate are children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research group that focuses on reducing poverty, 20 million children in the United States (nearly 1 in 4) will have received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — better known as food stamps — in 2016. With access to the food these benefits provide, experts say these children are more likely to do better in school, have better health and do better economically as adults than children that live in chronically food-insecure households.