Chapter One: Understanding “Hunger” and “Ending Hunger”

To end hunger in the United States we need to understand the hunger problem and to understand what “ending hunger” is and what it is not. Understanding this will help you understand why certain approaches in dealing with hunger make more sense than other approaches.

Scope of hunger

Hunger in the United States is the result of too many people simply not having enough money to cover all their basic needs. How many people? One of the most common misconceptions about hunger in the United States is that between one and two million people are hungry or are just a meal or two away from it. Would that it were so! The real number is between 30 and 40 million people. Not all of them are hungry right now, but most are able to avoid that only by short-changing some other critical need. For example, by not getting needed dental or medical care, by not paying the rent on time or by dropping their diet to levels that should not exist in America, like watering down the infant formula, feeding the children ketchup sandwiches or eating food scrounged from garbage cans.

Poverty creates hunger

When you think “hunger,” think “poverty.” Where there is poverty, there will almost always be hunger. And across America few problems are more intractable than poverty. The government has been tracking poverty only since 1959, but since then they have annually tallied how many people in the United States have incomes at or below the poverty level. It has never been less than 11.1 percent of us. That is one in nine people. That is the best we have ever done. More often the percentage is two or three points higher, up to as high as 15 percent, which is one in seven of us. In good economic times only one in nine people may need help, rising to as many as one in seven people when there is an economic downturn or some other poverty-increasing event or trend.

So the bad news is that the number of people who likely need food aid is much higher than most people think, involving nearly as many millions of people as were in need during the Great Depression!

The good news is that most of those who are hungry at any given moment are only temporarily in that condition. Government studies show that approximately 70 percent of those who are needy at any given moment will cycle out of it within 4.5 months. How can that be? Because most American households are only a paycheck or two away from being in need. All it would take to put them in need is a significant drop in or the loss of their income or some unexpected large expenses.

Who’s hungry?

Up to 70 percent of all Americans are at risk. They are getting along okay, and then they lose their job or their work hours are cut back, or their purse gets stolen, or the transmission goes out in the car, or a child gets sick and suddenly there aren’t enough dollars to cover the household’s needs. These are the types of reasons why people seek food aid. Not because they are multigenerational welfare recipients or are people who don’t know how to budget, work or cook. They are just like you or me, but on the other side of bad luck. They’ve been thrown for a loop by circumstances and for a couple of months they need help. But as soon as possible they will get back on their feet and you will never see them again.

Hunger relief is important

Hunger is only rarely ennobling or uplifting. Hunger hurts. Hunger can tear people and families apart emotionally, physically and sometimes spiritually. It can cause people to seek relief in drink or drugs, or to strike out in helpless fear, frustration and humiliation. You may have heard people self-righteously claim that they would never steal anything, only to have someone counter with, “But what if your family was hungry?” The original speaker would then sheepishly admit that in that instance they might indeed “do something desperate.”

As many as one in 10 people in your community face that exact dilemma today. Their family is hungry. They need your help. Bless you for meeting that need! But keep in mind that in this context “ending hunger” does not mean that we somehow can or are directly reducing the number of people who might from time to time need food assistance, how often they might need help, or how much help they will need. As a general rule, the only things that significantly reduce need levels are economic booms, increases in wages, construction of low-income housing and increases in government aid programs. Food pantries don’t provide these. We provide food. Some will immediately object that providing food to hungry people is only a band-aid. Indeed it is. But you know what? Sometimes a band-aid is exactly the right tool for the job.

There is certainly a place and a role for those who pursue long-term solutions to hunger. I pray every day for their success. But in the parable of the babies floating by us in the river, you and I have our own role to play. There are people and families who are hurting and suffering right now, and we have the ability to help those people. Just as we might splash out into the river to rescue individual babies, we have the ability to feed the hungry. It is the right thing for us to do. So although several of the Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations later in the book do speak to how agencies like yours and mine can play a very significant role in achieving long-term solutions to poverty and hunger, in general the operative definition of “ending hunger” in our work is the goal that:

“Whenever anyone in the geographic area we serve ever experiences a time of needing food assistance, they can readily access timely, adequate, appropriate assistance sufficient to see them safely through that time of need.”

That is the outcome the ideas in this book will enable you to achieve.

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