America’s Bottomless Hunger

Craig Donofrio — Break It Down

While some of us are debating the merits of cheaper Thanksgiving turkeys at Whole Foods, others are worried about putting any food on the table at all. In 2016, 15.6 million U.S. households struggled with food insecurity. Single-parent households, particularly those run by women, face the greatest risk.

Many of these families rely on government or charity food assistance. But that safety net may not be as secure for holiday seasons to come. The Trump administration’s budget proposal slashes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program budget by 25 percent—$193 billion—over the next 10 years, with no instruction on how states and communities might make up the difference. As the largest government program targeting hunger, SNAP helps some 42 million Americans make ends meet.

Food insecurity in America has existed for a long time. In 1968, CBS ran an exposé called “Hunger in America.” It opened with journalist Charles Kuralt delivering some sobering facts.

“Out of a population of over 200 million, 30 million are impoverished. … Of those 30 million, 10 million Americans, whether or not they are reached by federal aid, are hungry,” said Kuralt. “That’s just the arithmetic. Unfortunately, the problem is all too human.”

What followed was an eye-opening, even gruesome, view of the nation’s poorest citizens. Small children with bloated bellies. Children and adults talking of their hunger in shameful voices. An 11-year-old picked up for prostitution because she needs money for food.

The rise of the food stamp

The documentary was a catalyst for change in the nation’s food assistance programs. Sen. George McGovern, a member of the Committee on Agriculture, was watching CBS that night. McGovern would go on to devote much of his career to the country’s hunger problem, insisting a national response was needed for a national crisis.

At the time, federal aid wasn’t a new idea. The government had enacted the first food stamp program in 1939 as a means of both buying surplus foods from farmers and feeding the hungry. While 20 million Americans participated, purchasing packets of orange and blue stamps, the program ended a few years later when government-issued war rations took over.

Food stamps saw a resurgence two decades later under the Kennedy administration, and by 1966, some 1 million Americans nationwide relied on them.

Deficient nutrition and government cheese

Under the Kennedy administration plan, food stamps were purchased once a month through the state’s welfare office—and they weren’t cheap. For example, one woman interviewed in “Hunger in America” needed $70 (about $500 in today’s money) to buy enough stamps to feed her family.

For the nation’s poorest who couldn’t save up the funds to buy food stamps, “surplus commodities” were given away for free. Problem was, those surplus foods were whatever excess goods farmers had produced but couldn’t sell due to low demand—food nobody wanted—and were so non-nutritious they often led to malnourishment.

“Commodities are most notable for the foods they do not include,” Kuralt tells us. “No green veggies, no eggs, no fresh meat, no fresh milk, or fruit.” For example, in San Antonio, one of the four cities highlighted in the CBS documentary, the poor survived largely on rice and tortillas. One month, the government distributed over 1.4 million pounds of peanut butter nationally. Those who grew up on surplus food during this era can still vividly recall the great orange blocks of “government cheese.”

By the late ’70s, McGovern helped establish a more accessible food stamp program, under the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which eradicated the requirement that impoverished Americans purchase food stamps. By the late ’80s, physical food stamps and free surplus commodities were replaced by the familiar electronic benefit transfer cards. But the benefits are still far from enough to survive on. Last year, the national average for a month’s worth of food under SNAP was $126 per person, or about $1.40 per meal, according to PBS NewsHour.

While SNAP exists alongside other food assistance programs like Women, Infants, and Children, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, by the USDA’s own measure, $126 a month was barely enough to feed a 6-year-old child on its so-called “thrifty plan” in 2008. Accounting for inflation, you’d need at least another $10 to even meet that bar today.

Figuring out food banks

It’s hard to eat enough on $4.20 a day, much less devise balanced meals. Even with 42 million Americans enrolled in SNAP, it’s estimated that 1 in 7 (about 46 million) Americans rely on charitable organizations to keep from going hungry.

The first food bank—a center that collects and disburses food to the hungry directly and through a network of community organizations—opened in in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1967. These organizations have helped scale and standardize community efforts to fill the gap between SNAP and food needs.

And it isn’t an easy task. Food banks primarily rely on donations to work. For example, Community Food Share, a food bank network in Louisville, Colorado, receives virtually all its food through donations or at a discounted purchase price: 88 percent is donated, 6 percent is purchased, and the remaining 6 percent of the food comes from the government.

Collecting and purchasing enough food is one thing, but, paradoxically, many food bank networks also face distribution challenges, especially when it comes to nutritious fresh foods.

“Many food banks, and even many feeding kitchens, lack adequate refrigeration or freezer space for any more than day-to-day storage of perishables, so fast turnaround is a must,” says Richard W. VanVranken, agricultural agent at Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, who helped start a food bank in New Jersey. That’s why most food banks request canned and shelf-stable donations, though it’s no secret that fresh produce, meat, and dairy would certainly be tastier and, in some cases, more nutritious.

Another hurdle for fresh produce is that between donations and bulk purchases, many banks don’t get to select which foods they receive. While common items go quickly, other less-common produce rots on the shelf.

To illustrate the problem, VanVranken references an entry from the Journal of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents detailing a fresh produce pilot program in Maine. One of the takeaways, spelled out in capital letters, was: “NO MORE UNUSUAL CROPS,” such as “arugula, red leafed lettuce, kale, or strange-looking squash (pattypan); no-one will take them!”

This creates a catch-22. Modern food bank stocks are far more nutritious than the peanut butter and tortillas of the surplus commodities days, but those in need don’t have the time or resources to research Bon Appetit recipes for blistered baby zucchini, baby pattypan squash, and grilled tomatoes. “Many assume that fresh wholesome foods are the best items to give out through feeding programs, but if those products can’t be prepared properly, then the food is wasted and recipients go hungry,” says VanVranken.

To tackle that problem, some food banks and pantries provide education and demonstrations about how to healthfully prepare a range of produce, but even then the lessons must be quick and convenient, often conducted during a food pantry’s open hours, and sensitive to the students’ potential constraints in terms of other ingredients, equipment, and culinary knowledge.

The kindness of strangers

Donations and nutrition education programs won’t be enough to offset the drastically reduced SNAP funding proposed by the Trump administration.

Arkansas, for example, would need to allocate $144 million to make up for the SNAP cuts, essentially throwing the state into a hunger crisis. Kathy Webb, a former Arkansas state representative who now runs the nonprofit organization Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, told PBS NewsHour that her state won’t be able to weather the blow:

“We cannot make up the difference. And all of the charitable food networks put together is about a 20th of what the federal safety net [in Arkansas] is.”

Still, while not a direct replacement for government subsidies, food bank networks make a significant impact in fighting hunger in their communities. For those wondering how best to contribute, money, even in modest amounts, is ideal for food banks that already have bulk purchase deals in place. For instance, according to the Houston Food Bank, a $1 donation can buy $6 worth of food. “Money would provide the most flexibility to pay for particular foods that don’t get donated and operating expenses above and beyond food needs,” says VanVranken.

For banks that prefer food donations, try to collect the following: canned fruits and vegetables, shelf-stable lean meats like canned tuna and salmon, nuts and nut butters, whole-grain products, and low-fat shelf-stable milk and alternative milks.

Donating food or money isn’t the only way to help out. Between managing and distributing food stocks, conducting nutrition classes, and general operations, there’s a lot to keep volunteers busy. Contact your local hunger relief organization for details on volunteer programs.

What you’re able to give may seem puny compared to the needs of millions of hungry Americans, but remember what Charles Kuralt showed the country back in 1968: Hunger is human. Your assistance will help at least one person for at least one meal, and that could make all the difference.