We know, or think we know, what hunger looks like. And we believe we're too sophisticated to have such a backward problem here in the land of plenty.
Those who manage our country's emergency food system would like us to know that that belief is unfounded. Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief charity in the United States, saw a 46 percent increase in clients between 2005 and 2009. One in eight Americans (about a third of them children) now receive at least part of their food from emergency sources, and the numbers are still rising.
The current recession has created or exacerbated financial pressures, including prolonged unemployment, shrinking retirement savings, reduced work hours and wages, and home foreclosures, while costs for fuel, health care, and groceries continue to rise. Add the destruction wrought by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the Gulf oil disaster, and it's no wonder many people are struggling to keep food on the table.
Those of us who are "food secure"—the USDA's way of describing households with access to enough food—may assume that government food programs come to the rescue when the economy falters. There are gaps in the system, however, and budget-balancing austerity measures being discussed and implemented in Washington and in state capitals across the country threaten to make those gaps wider by targeting programs for the needy just as demand is rising.
And the problem goes beyond the relatively small number of people who simply don't get enough to eat. There's a large group of Americans whose food choices are limited by their budgets. They may never be hungry in the physical sense—they manage to keep enough food in their stomachs to prevent starvation—but their diets are centered on calorie-rich but nutrient-poor processed foods, since these foods are often cheaper. (Federal subsidies for corn and soy, the key ingredients in many processed foods, help make this possible.) Hunger and overconsumption are simply two faces of malnutrition. We may recognize the first but fail to recognize the second, since it sometimes takes on the paradoxical disguise of obesity.
For those on the front lines in the fight against hunger, one of the most frustrating facts is this: At a time when 40 million Americans are enrolled in SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), billions of pounds of food never makes it from farms, orchards, and gardens to the dinner table. While some is lost to bad weather and pest infestations in the field and some is spoiled during transportation and handling, some is discarded because, although perfectly edible, it does not meet the aesthetic standards of modern supermarket shoppers. And consumers are guilty of buying and discarding tons of fresh fruit and vegetables each year. Then, to add insult to injury, we spend millions to dispose of the waste.
As everyday citizens, we can help connect those who have excess food with those who need it by taking the time to learn about how our local charity food distribution systems work, when our politicians are proposing legislation that harms the hungry, and where food is being wasted (including our own kitchens). As citizens who garden, though, we can do even more: We can divert some of our abundance away from the waste stream and toward hungry people. We can help ensure that they have not only enough food but enough fresh, nutritious, affordable food. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, either; many established programs have shown the way, and others are in the midst of being created (see "Feeding Creativity," below, and go to OrganicGardening.com/plenty for more inspiration). The number of ways we can help is limited only by our imaginations.
Many of America's problems seem to have no easy solutions, but hunger shouldn't be one of them. The solution is right in our back yards. We have plenty.