Here’s a last-minute holiday gift idea: food.
This country is caught in a damaging cycle. Hard times mean that hunger is rising while donations to food banks are dropping. Government does help. Food-stamp use has increased 65 percent since 2008 to an all-time high. But private charity has to help as well.
Several years ago, we decided to stop giving each other expensive holiday presents and donate that money to our local feeding programs. Since then, the need has only gotten worse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate jumped to 15.1 percent last year, or 46.2 million people. But twice that number “are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income,” reports The Associated Press. One key reason: Since the recession began in 2007, real household incomes have actually dropped 6.4 percent.
These trends have a direct impact on food security. The United States Conference of Mayors reported recently that of 29 cities surveyed, 25 saw a sharp increase in requests for help. As a result, many feeding agencies are reducing quantities or limiting visits; some are even turning away needy families.
Behind these statistics are real faces, real families, real communities. Here’s a brief sampling of reports from around the country:
Texas: At Fort Hood, military wives stayed up past midnight last month to register for free Thanksgiving turkeys. The 450 slots were filled in an hour, reports The Washington Post. “It’s like a hidden world,” said Army wife Amy King, who was lining up for free groceries at another post. “We have to struggle like everybody else does.”
New York: In the Gates Chili school district west of Rochester, laid-off Kodak and Xerox managers are registering their kids for subsidized school lunches for the first time. Debbi Beauvais, who supervises the program, told The New York Times: “Parents signing up children say, ‘I never thought a program like this would apply to me and my kids.’”
Idaho: Wal-Mart stores are seeing an “enormous spike” in the number of consumers shopping at midnight on the first day of every month, when their food-stamp accounts are replenished. James Dougherty told NBC News that toward the end of the month when their stamps run out, his family subsists mainly on rice. So they join the ravenous crowds when they can shop again. “It’s chaotic, I mean, it really is,” he says. “If you’re claustrophobic, don’t go into an Idaho grocery store on the first.”
Pennsylvania: “We’re seeing a lot of first-time users,” Carey Morgan, a hunger advocate in the wealthy suburbs north of Philadelphia, tells phillyburbs.com. “They may have been receiving a six-figure salary a few years ago, (but) everyone is one disaster away. It could be a layoff, medical emergency, mortgage payment. It’s so easy to fall into the cycle of poverty.”
Nebraska: One out of six kids under 18 in Lincoln County is at risk for hunger, reports the North Platte Telegraph. “When it comes to the issue of hunger, it’s not like snow,” says Brian Barks of the Heartland Food Bank. “When you walk outside and it’s snowing, you know it. With hunger, you could walk outside and not know that someone down the street just lost a job and is having to decide between paying bills and buying food.”
Feeding people is not just a question of charity, it’s in the national interest. Food aid is spent immediately, so it directly stimulates the economy and generates income for store owners, truckers and producers. And it saves money in the long run by promoting healthier children.
A lengthy report in The Kansas City Star concludes: “The fallout when children don’t get the nutrition they need can create a lifetime of troubles: delayed speech or motor skills in early childhood, social ills in elementary school, severe academic woes in high school. Some become dropouts. All because, experts say, food-insecure children are often deprived of the proper nutrients at a time when their brains and bodies are going through the most essential growth.”
“It’s quite cheap to feed children and very expensive to hospitalize them and give them special-education programs and so on,” says Deborah Frank, an expert in childhood hunger. “It’s just dumb, to put it mildly.”
So write a check to your local food bank. Kids get smarter, the economy gets better, and you don’t have to stress out over finding the perfect gift. No one returns a turkey because it’s the wrong size.
Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah,” was published last spring by HarperCollins. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.