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Many people think of hunger as an affliction that only affects underdeveloped countries or is typically the result of environmentally-induced famine. However, for one in ten Americans, hunger is an everyday reality.
Right now, over 50 million Americans -- including nearly 17 million children -- are struggling with hunger. We all know and are in contact with people affected by hunger, even though we might not be aware of it.
Poverty is forcing millions of Americans into a hunger crisis. Their hunger emergency is defined by food insecurity, which is the lack of access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.2 Families find themselves buying cheaper and less nutritious food, or cutting entire meals out of their diet, just to make ends meet. Increasing over time, this pattern leads to chronic malnutrition, affecting children and families in profoundly destructive ways.
Hunger plays a pivotal role in perpetuating the cycle of poverty in the U.S., weakening families and systemically impairing the country's collective ability to reach its full potential. Hungry children are not able to play, engage, and learn like other children, and are therefore less likely to become productive adults. Compromised health can lead to both short- and long-term problems; children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
Both the commonplace demands of daily life and unexpected, dramatic events can easily push families below the poverty line. "Families are often forced to make the tradeoff between food and other expenses" explains Penn State University economic geographer Amy Glasmeier in her book, An Atlas of Poverty in America. "Healthcare is a particular problem. In poor, rural communities families often have no choice but to use the emergency room for routine health care. This is very expensive. Car repairs are another significant and unexpected expense. If the family car needs repair and it is the end of the month, when cash reserves are low, a family will have no choice but to reduce food intake to get the car back on the road in order to go to work."4
According to FeedingAmerica.org, food insecurity affects many segments of the American population, and exists in every county in the U.S., from a low of 5% in Steele Country, ND to a high of 37% in Holmes County, MS.
The USDA estimates that 16.7 million children are living in food-insecure households. In 2011, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (20.6%), especially households with children headed by single women (36.8%) or single men (24.9%), Black, non-Hispanic households (25.1%) and Hispanic households (26.2%).
Families: A frightening 14.7% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity during 2011. 50.1 million people lived in food-insecure households, including children, working adults, and seniors.
8% of seniors (one million households) were food insecure in 2011. A study that examined the health and nutritional status of seniors found that food-insecure seniors had significantly lower intakes of vital nutrients in their diets when compared to their food-secure counterparts. In addition, food-insecure seniors were more likely to report fair/poor health status and had higher nutritional risk.6
"Decades of research and experience with antipoverty programs have made it clear that poverty involves very complex, interrelated and sometimes intractable socioeconomic, family, and individual issues," states the website of the Institute for Research on Poverty." 8
Because the causes are so complicated, it is not surprising that the solutions are equally as difficult to implement. Improving education in poverty stricken areas and changing public policy both affect change, and providing a safety net for those individuals in immediate crisis are all important areas that must continue to be approached with staunch purpose.
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
One person or one idea alone cannot unravel the hunger crisis. We must continue to alleviate the immediate suffering of the hungry by sending food to families in need, but simultaneously we must move toward solutions that will end the poverty cycle. By banding together and supporting nonprofit relief organizations, we can work toward affecting change nationally while immediately providing enough for those who have too little.
2 FIVIMS, (2006). What is meant by food insecurity and vulnerability? Retrieved April 24, 2007, from Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) Web site
3 Food Research and Action Center. Retrieved May 22, 2007 from Food and Research Action Center Web site
4 Valentine, Vikki (2005, 11 22). Hunger in America: Q & A: The Causes Behind Hunger in America. Retrieved April 27, 2007, from National Public Radio Web site
8 Institute for Research on Poverty, (2004, 12 6). Understanding Poverty. Retrieved April 24, 2007, from Institute for Research on Poverty Web site