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Given the dismal hunger statistics the government just released, what is the best way to help?
—John, Washington, D.C.
With Thanksgiving right behind us, the last thing most of us are thinking about is hunger. In fact, when we do, many of us think of hunger as something suffered only by citizens of "poor" countries. But while actual starvation is rare in the United States, the recent USDA study on food security you're referring to highlights the fact that hunger is not just a faraway problem.
The survey found that 14.6 percent of American households—49 million people—were food-insecure at some point during 2008, the highest number since the survey was first conducted in 1995. In what I find to be an even more staggering view of food insecurity in the United States, a study published in early November showed that 49 percent of all Americans receive some form of food aid by the time they turn 20. And according to the latest participation-rate data, only about 67 percent of eligible Americans actually take part in the food-stamp program.
With these high numbers, you won't be surprised that there is an increasing number of people seeking supplemental food from food banks and soup kitchens. Unfortunately, the rise in clientele coincides with a drop in corporate donations as struggling companies keep a closer eye on their inventory. Vicki Escarra of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief charity and network of food banks in the United States, said that while demand is up 25 percent to 40 percent, donations have risen only 18 percent. So the first thing you can do to help is to donate food, time, or money to your local food bank. Feeding America's food-bank locator can help you find your local provider. Multiply your efforts by organizing a holiday-themed food drive or replacing some of your family gift-giving with monetary donations to a local food bank.
The Capital Area Food Bank, in your hometown of Washington, D.C., delivers nearly 25 million pounds of food to 700 nonprofit partner agencies in the metropolitan area each year. With a food insecurity rate of 11.9 percent, Washington is not among the very highest—but the need is increasing nonetheless. In fact, the Capital Area Food Bank reported a 91 percent increase in calls to its Hunger Lifeline last year. (Use this map of food-insecurity rates, or this map of food-stamp usage, to learn more about food insecurity in your own region.)
These increases are due, at least in part, to the recession, but there were plenty of people in need during boom times as well—and our current policies just aren't combating hunger in the way they should. So the second thing you can do is learn more about current political action around hunger relief.
There are three vital hunger-related bills you should know about right now. The first is the Good Samaritan Hunger Relief Tax Incentive Extension Act of 2009. This would extend, and make permanent, a tax incentive for farmers to donate excess food inventory to charity. The second is the School Food Recovery Act, which will allow schools to donate excess food to food banks. The third, and most important, is a bill to amend the National School Lunch Act, which serves more than 30 million children nationwide. A reauthorization of the school lunch act is required every five years and is scheduled to be voted on in early 2010. Sens. Michael Bennet, Sherrod Brown, and Bob Casey are co-sponsoring an act they would like incorporated into the renewal—the Hunger Free Schools Act, which claims to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles in the school lunch program and serve an additional 3 million children in need.
President Obama made a pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015. In order to do this, the administration and Congress must ensure funding and support for food banks and nutrition programs. Understanding and advocating for the importance of hunger prevention and relief programs is one of the most important things you can do to make sure this happens. It may sound trite, but contact your representatives and let them know your concerns about hunger on a local and national level. Follow upcoming legislation and find more ways to advocate for change at Feeding America's online Hunger Action Center.