As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have seen young and old, men and women and several different ethnic groups using the two food banks where I volunteer. I now want to try and flesh out how many people are using food pantries and some of the reasons they find themselves there. I will mostly be using statistics from Pennsylvania and/or the county in which I live.
According to statistics from the USDA, 49.1 million Americans, or 14.3%, live in a food insecure household. These residents do not consistently have access to the necessary food needed to lead an active, healthy life. Pennsylvania’s food insecurity rate falls below the national average. State of Hunger: Pennsylvania 2013, a document prepared by the Coalition Against Hunger, states that 1.6 million Pennsylvania residents, or 1 in 8, are food insecure. In my county the food insecurity rate is 10% in general and 14% for children. While not everyone who is food insecure uses a food pantry or soup kitchen, the State of Hunger: Pennsylvania 2013 report states that 105,044 county residents (503,897 total county population) participated in the State Food Purchase Program which provides food to charities, like food pantries, who help feed low income residents.
That’s a lot of people. Each person who uses a food pantry has his or her own personal story of how they became food insecure. Most clients of a food pantry come because they have little choice. For many, they only go to the food pantry when their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have run out. According to the USDA, the average monthly household SNAP benefit for Pennsylvania residents in 2014 was $241.05. This benefit amount has declined every year in Pennsylvania since 2011 and it is projected to decline even more in 2015. When those meager dollars run out, many turn to the local food pantry to help close the gap. While volunteering, I have noticed it is busier at the end of the month than it is at the beginning when SNAP benefits are distributed.
With the cuts in SNAP benefits, less and less people qualify for the program. In my county, 25,614 residents participated in SNAP in April 2014 or 5% of the county population. The county’s food insecurity rate is 10%, meaning that approximately half of the county’s food insecure are not receiving benefits. Currently to qualify for SNAP benefits your gross monthly income needs to be at or below 130% of poverty. It is accepted, however, that families need an income at or above 200% of poverty just to make ends meet. As you can see, there is a huge gap between the income that qualifies someone for SNAP benefits and what that person really needs to survive. People falling into that gap are certainly coming to the food pantry.
If all these numbers and words don’t help you put a face on who is using food banks, I encourage you to watch a powerful documentary called A Place at the Table. A companion book by the same name was also published. This movie focuses on the experiences of three Americans struggling with food insecurity. You can stream it live from Amazon Prime or Netflix.
Two things stuck with me from this movie. The first is the following quote from Jeff Bridges.
35 million people in the U.S. are hungry or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 13 million of them are children. If another country were doing this to our children, we’d be at war.
The second item that has stayed with me is the fact that we almost ended hunger in America in the recent past. In 1969 President Nixon declared war on hunger and called for governmental action to end hunger in America. In response funding was increased for existing programs and new programs, like the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), were created. Within a decade hunger in the United States was almost eradicated.
We have tackled this problem before and almost succeeded. I am saddened that we have allowed so much ground to be lost over the last few decades, but I also have hope that Americans can once again rise to the challenge and eliminate hunger in the United States. I choose to focus on that hope.