A rising tide of hunger


Hunger is probably the last thing on most minds during the festival of gluttony that is Thanksgiving. Those who can afford to do so are heartily encouraged to throw away their diet manuals, tuck in and collapse into a turkey-induced coma. Unfortunately, though, the number of those who can’t is rising at an alarming pace.

A yearly survey by the Department of Agriculture finds that the recession has dramatically worsened hunger in the United States. “Food insecurity” is at its highest level since the survey was started in 1995, with big increases across the board. Among the most troubling statistics: The number of households characterized as having “very low food security” -- meaning normal eating patterns were disrupted and food intake was reduced because of a lack of money -- jumped from 4.7 million in 2007 to 6.7 million in 2008, and the number of children in this situation rose from 700,000 to almost 1.1 million.

Childhood hunger is an especially heart-rending scourge that President Obama, during his 2008 campaign, vowed to eradicate by 2015. He has yet to put forward a proposal for meeting that ambitious goal, but you can’t really fault the government for not addressing the hunger problem. Because federal spending on food and nutrition programs rises with demand, expenditures in 2008 saw their biggest annual jump in 16 years -- an 11% increase, to $60.7 billion. Moreover, the stimulus package approved last winter raised the average food stamp benefit per person by 17%, to $133 a month. Yet the USDA survey shows that government programs aren’t slowing a rising tide of hunger.


High food prices might be partially to blame, but the biggest culprit is clearly unemployment, which stands at a whopping 10.2% and is expected to keep climbing into 2010. “The best thing we can say about the labor market is that it may be getting worse more slowly,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last week. His less-than-stellar assessment of the recovery implies that inflation should remain low, but that won’t put food on the table in jobless households.

It isn’t just demand for government food assistance that’s on the rise; charitable food banks and soup kitchens across the country are also seeing a big jump in traffic. According to the USDA survey, 4.8 million households -- which included 4.5 million children -- got emergency food from such services at least once in 2008, a 22% increase from the previous year. That’s putting a serious financial strain on the food networks. If you’re thankful for having a full belly this Thanksgiving weekend, the best way to show it would be to give them a hand.