In 2019, when the overall economy was theoretically strong, 34 million Americans (equaling the populations of Ohio, Arizona, Maine, Iowa, and Georgia combined) lived below the meager federal poverty line of $21,330 for a family of three, nearly one in five Americans lived near or below the poverty line, and many couldn’t afford enough food. The federal minimum wage remained at $7.25 per hour, a poverty wage, and 14 million U.S. adults with jobs faced hunger.
By contrast, according to Forbes, the combined net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $2.96 trillion in 2019.
In 2020 the pandemic and the national economic collapse have made tens of millions of Americans who were previously poor and hungry poorer and hungrier, and pushed tens of millions of others, previously treading water just above the poverty line, into poverty and hunger. Tens of millions of Americans lost jobs and/or a significant portion of their income. Many of the 29 million U.S. children who were entitled to receive free or reduced-price school meals failed to get them. Many of the hundreds of thousands of older Americans who receive meals at senior centers also failed to get them. The number of the food insecure shot up to an estimated 54 million Americans, including 18 million U.S. children.
Hunger Free America found that 37 percent of parents nationwide were cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children in the spring of 2020 because they did not have enough money for food. That means that the pandemic U.S. child hunger rate is more than two and a half times the 2019 rate found by USDA. Many people of color and households headed by single women are in even worse shape.
There is still some good news to be found. Despite Trump’s hostility to the federal food safety net, it mostly worked. Hunger Free America’s annual national hunger report found that, from March 2020 to July 2020, the total SNAP (food stamps) caseload in 33 states increased from 30.8 million to 35.2 million, a 14 percent jump. The total amount of SNAP benefits received from March 2020 to July 2020 in 22 states—including California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Ohio—went up from $3 billion to $4.4 billion, which represents a 47 percent increase. While charitable food pantries and soup kitchens are vital in fighting hunger, their role is dwarfed by that of the government food safety net, which increased rapidly during the pandemic to meet the growing need.
A lot of Americans do think about these things at this time of year. So how can we help? First and foremost, by contacting our elected officials and pushing them to enact public policies that guarantee jobs and a living wage, make quality health care and housing available to all, and ensure an adequate government food safety net. We can pressure the U.S. Senate to finally pass a massive recovery bill that includes a big SNAP boost, as did the one that was passed by the U.S. House in May of 2020.
If you can afford to do so, donate to groups like these, which conduct direct service and advocacy work that address the root causes of poverty and hunger:
- Hunger Free America, the group I run, connects low-income Americans with federal food benefits, and successfully lobbies for policies like higher wages and universal school breakfast.
- The Food Research and Action Center conducts research to document the extent of hunger, its impact, and effective solutions and seek stronger federal, state, and local public policies that will reduce hunger, undernutrition, and obesity.
- Working in a deeply conservative state, Utahns Against Hunger is Utah’s only state-wide anti-hunger non-profit organization working on public policy and advocacy for federal nutrition programs.
- Feeding Texas represents the state’s 21 food banks and also educates and persuades state and federal decision-makers to help them understand the root causes of hunger and strengthen its public policy solutions.
Anywhere in the nation, you can also volunteer to fight hunger by aiding high-impact projects. Volunteers can make a big difference in combatting hunger, and then apply what they learn in a multitude of different ways.
Together, we can build the movement to make America hunger-free.
—Joel Berg is the CEO of Hunger Free America and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?