As the economic crisis deepens, its human toll is becoming more evident. A new survey of food charities in the United States has revealed a dramatic increase in hunger. Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the US, says that a growing number of families face difficulties in securing adequate nutrition. Meanwhile food banks have proven ill-equipped to meet the increased demand caused by layoffs and increased food costs, and many have collapsed or have restricted the allotments of food they make.
In a nationwide survey of 160 local food assistance programs, with
operations covering virtually every county in the US, Feeding America
found that there has been a 30 percent increase in requests for
emergency food assistance, and that every food bank has seen an increase
in demand for food relief. An opinion poll commissioned by the
organization and released simultaneously found that a growing number of
low-income families lack sufficient nutrition.
In a chilling statement on social conditions in the US, 72 percent of
surveyed food charities said that they are unable to meet the current
demands of local communities for assistance. In most cases, the
charities have responded by offering smaller distributions to the
hungry, and some have been forced to close down.
This is taking place in every region of the country. To cite a few
examples, the Food Bank of New York City reported that organizations
under its direction "have regularly reported over the past year that
their shelves are bare and that they have had to turn people away due to
their lack of food." The Cleveland Foodbank reported that the crisis "is
moving at a pace so fast that our staff cannot catch a breath." The Food
Bank of Corpus Christi, Texas, said that "our agencies are seeing such a
drastic increase in new clients that they are having a hard time getting
the money to acquire the food we need," while "other agencies are
burning out and we are seeing a number of agencies closing their doors."
Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee reported that its
agencies have asked that it not refer new clients "because they are
running out of food."
In its survey of households, Feeding America found that nearly two
thirds of low-income households—defined as having an income at less than
200 percent of the official poverty level—said that within the past year
"their food didn't last and they could not afford to buy more." Forty
percent "ate less than they felt they should," and 36 percent "cut the
size of meals or skipped meals because there wasn't enough money for
food." A large majority of low-income respondents, 70 percent, said that
they are reducing food spending, while 62 percent said they make
multiple shopping trips for food "because they didn't have enough money
to buy everything at one time." In New York City, in 2008, nearly 40
percent of all households said that they had faced difficulties in
procuring sufficient food for their families, a sharp increase over
figures from 2007.
Hunger is affecting ever-wider sections of the working class, including
two-parent households and the gainfully employed. The survey of food
banks found user increases of 99.4 percent among "first-time" users, 74
percent among unemployed workers, 59 percent of those with jobs, and 48
percent among families with children seeking assistance.
"When you hear someone say, ‘I never thought that I would have to come
to the pantry to get food,' or to have someone say, ‘I used to donate to
the pantry and now I am using it,' that's when you realize how tough
things are," a representative of the Community Food Banks of South
A food charity in Bloomington, Indiana, reported that a food bank in
what it called "a higher income per capita" area saw an increase from 60
visits per month last year to 700 this year. A food bank in Long Island,
New York, said that it has witnessed "increased need among middle class
people making between $40,000-$70,000, who are recently unemployed,
having health problems, having difficulties managing mortgage payments,
and going to pantries and soup kitchens for emergency food assistance."
A survey of New York City households found that even among the
college-educated, 36 percent faced hardship in 2008 in buying needed
food, an increase from 11 percent in 2003. A food assistance program in
California reported that it is "seeing people coming to us who have
never been a part of our system and who never thought that they would
need food assistance."
"We are in a national crisis," said Vicki Escarra, the president and CEO
of Feeding America. "We have some food banks reporting as high as a 65
percent increase in need. There are record numbers of new men, women and
children, who never thought they would need food assistance."
Financial hardship forces many families to choose among necessities such
as food, health care, and home heating. The survey of households
revealed that 40 percent of low-income families had, in the past year,
been forced to choose between eating and paying for utilities.
The economic crisis is at the root of the growth in hunger. Upwards of
90 percent of food banks attribute the increase in hunger to rising food
prices and unemployment. Sixty percent also cite fuel costs, and 52
percent listed the inadequacy of state food stamp programs as a cause.
A press release by Feeding America calls on Congress "to pass economic
recovery legislation that will offer desperately needed relief to both
low-income Americans and the nation's food banks, as the recent surge in
unemployment has pushed millions to the brink of hunger."
Estimates on the size of the "economic stimulus" package that
President-elect Barack Obama will put in place have ranged from $400
billion to $900 billion. Democrats have hedged their bets, moreover, by
asserting that its passage will depend upon minority Republican support.
But whatever its final size and content, Obama's "stimulus" will prove
woefully inadequate in the face of the deepest social crisis since the
Great Depression. The sums being discussed represent a small fraction of
the more than $8 trillion that has already been doled out to the largest
Meanwhile, in the 2009 Federal Budget, only $62 billion has been
appropriated for all food assistance programs, including food stamps and
school lunches, which for many children provide the only substantial
meal of the day.
More than 9 percent of all US households now rely on food stamps, the
Supplemental Food Assistance Program, to help meet dietary needs. This
is a sharp increase from 2001, when 6 percent used food stamps. But
indications are that this number will rise sharply. A number of states,
including Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest, have seen
record requests for food assistance. Food stamps function as vouchers
that can be redeemed at grocery stores. Generally, they may be exchanged
only for the cheapest items in stock, and only for staples such as milk,
meat, and bread.
The program will not meet the level of hunger provoked by the crisis. In
the Feeding America survey of households, one third of food stamp
recipients said "their benefits only lasted for two weeks or less."
Bureaucratic hurdles prevent a large number of eligible families from
receiving aid. Undocumented immigrants, as well as immigrants who have
been in the country legally for less than five years, are not eligible.
Assistance is pegged to 130 percent of the official poverty level,
meaning that large numbers of the so-called "working poor" are
ineligible, including many of those surveyed by Feeding America.
Though they paint a grim portrait, the Feeding America surveys on hunger
offer only a glimpse of the level of social misery to come.
Significantly, the surveys were conducted at the end of November. Since
then, layoffs have mounted precipitously.
IF YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE FEEDING FAMILY, SIGN UP FOR FOOD STAMPS NOW.
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