Food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens may seem like the answer to hunger in America. They are, however, a short-term and inadequate response. There has been a stunning increase in the number of emergency food programs over the last 40 years. In 1980, there were about 2 dozen food banks in the United States.
Today, there are more than 400, which serve 63,000 affiliated pantries and shelters. The growth of the emergency food system, however, has failed to solve “hunger.” Despite a spike during the Great Recession and during the pandemic, the prevalence of food insecurity has remained relatively constant over the past 28 years. In 2021, over 10% of households were food insecure, which is only slightly below the 11.9% rate that was recorded in 1995, the year the federal government started keeping statistics.
Meanwhile, the cost of housing and healthcare has continued to outpace incomes. The average person would need to make $25.82 per-hour to afford a modest 2-bedroom apartment – more than 3x the federal minimum wage. There are only 28 counties in the entire United States where a worker earning the minimum wage could afford to rent a one-bedroom home. The average worker also pays $450 per month for healthcare coverage, a number that jumps to $1,168 for family plans.
If we want to solve hunger once and for all, we need to reduce the need for emergency assistance that food banks provide.
Although hunger affects every community in the United States, some groups of people are more vulnerable than others. African Americans are two times more likely to be food insecure than white, non-Hispanic households. Senior citizens are the fastest-growing food insecure population in the United States. One in 4 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is food insecure. And a growing body of research shows that the number of college students facing hunger is skyrocketing.
46% of students from low-income households say hunger impacts their performance in school.
If millions of children can’t learn because they haven’t eaten breakfast, we are squandering the future of the next generation. If we consign illness onto an entire class of people, we are denying them their opportunity to succeed. Hunger is not simply an obstacle to be overcome, it’s a formidable barrier to a person’s, and, by extension, our country’s prosperity.
That means supporting higher minimum wages so that workers are being fairly compensated for their labor. It means increasing access to fresh and nutritious food. We must also strengthen safety net programs like SNAP and Medicaid, so that families who are experiencing hard times don’t fall deeper into poverty. Everyone should have access to an adequate place to live, so we need to protect and expand programs that will increase the supply of affordable housing. We should invest in our schools to ensure that all children are provided a quality education, fortify school breakfast and lunch programs so that kids are well-fed and able to focus during class, and supplement the disposable income of millions of families by providing child care assistance. Finally, we must acknowledge that hunger disproportionately affects African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans and take steps to right the historical wrongs that have trapped a large percentage of these groups in poverty for generations.