As the holiday season ramps up and cooks everywhere prepare to fill their tables with burnished roasts, bubbling pies, and heaps of holiday cookies, a sobering fact runs counter to the seasonal excess: in America—the wealthiest country in the world—hunger rates are at an all-time high. And the problem is similarly epic in the UK and Canada.
Nearly one in six Americans currently goes hungry. That shocking figure is the result of a perfect storm of economic changes over the past few years. Prior to the Great Recession of 2008, only one in ten households had trouble getting food on the table. But when the downturn hit and national unemployment ballooned to about ten percent by 2009, jobless Americans found themselves with a lot less cash on hand to cover the grocery bills. And although the recession officially ended in 2009, food security hasn't rebounded along with the economy.
"The recession technically ended several years ago—but that's just a technical thing," says Bill Ayres, executive director of WhyHunger, a national organization that seeks to end hunger through grassroots social initiatives. "The people at the top tier of the economy, they lost a lot of money, but they've gained it all back. The people down the line, they lost a tremendous amount of money and they haven't made it back again."
One of the biggest national problems that Ayres sees as contributing to America's hunger epidemic is that fact that many workers are underemployed and underpaid.
"It's about jobs," he says. "Many of the jobs available to people do not pay the kind of wage that is sustainable for a family."
And that leads to some tough decisions at the dinner table, Ayres says.
"One of the choices they make is to skip meals so they can feed their kids."
Another factor that has had a devastating impact on Americans' access to food is the massive reduction in SNAP benefits—a.k.a. food stamps—that went into effect last November. The cuts, included in a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill, slashed $8.6 billion from the SNAP program. That reduction in benefits affected the roughly 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps in a starkly quantifiable way: the maximum monthly allowance awarded to a family of four dropped from $668 to $632, or a net loss of $432 per year. That represents a loss of about 21 meals per month, a huge dip that many families just can't make up for.
"The amounts of these cuts don't seem that big—we're talking $50, $60, $80 a month," Ayres says. "But for folks that were on the margin, that just pushed them over into hunger."
Many Americans have turned to their local food pantries to make up for their inability to purchase the food they need. According to data collected by one of the country's largest food bank, the Food Bank for New York City, more than 80 percent of food pantries in the US have reported an increase in demand this year. But they often don't have enough food to serve the hungry people that come through their doors: more than 60 percent said they have had to reduce the amount of food in the bags they give away.
"We're seeing levels of food shortages that have never been seen before," says Triada Stampas, vice president of research and public affairs at the Food Bank for New York City. In New York State, Triada says, a food pantry bag must contain nine meals. "But fewer and fewer food pantries are able to meet that standard," she says. "People are getting turned away for lack of food."
Of the cuts to the food stamp program, Triada says, "This was a tremendously bad decision that came out of Washington. It left cities and states holding the bag." And while she hopes to see Congressional action on other important food-subsidies programs such as an increase in free school lunches, she recognizes that there's no magic bullet for a nation that's as gripped by hunger as the US is right now.
"There is no white knight riding in on their horse to save the day," she says.
Such sky-high incidences of hunger in a developed Western nation come as a shock. But in the similarly wealthy UK and Canada, hunger has proven to be a persistent problem, too. In the UK, 13 million people—about one in five—live below the poverty line. A 2012 study found that one in five British mothers reported regularly skipping meals in order to be able to feed their children, who nevertheless often went showed up at school hungry, with 41 percent of teachers saying they noticed fatigue and distractedness in their students as a result. As in the US, a staggering number of Brits now rely on food banks to fill out their pantries, with new food banks opening around Britain at a rate of about two per week. In Canada, close to one million people visit food banks each month, and over the past 15 years, that number has never fallen below 700,000.
Around the holidays, Ayres says, many people think about giving back, often volunteering at local soup kitchens or donating food or cash to their nearby food pantry. It's during the rest of the year, he says, when the issue of hunger seems to disappear from people's minds.
"This isn't a one month of the year problem," he says. "It's a 12 months of the year problem."
He notes that hunger is universal, affecting all kinds of communities and people from every religious and racial background.
"It isn't a question of 'them' that are hungry. It's a question of 'us' who are hungry," he says.