Faces of Hunger in America By Mehnaz Ladha

With the Trump administration proposing budget cuts that would deplete federal funding for food assistance programs, grassroots and social service organizations are assuming responsibility for the widespread food insecurity sweeping the nation.

“That’s what will make all the difference for all the people in need,” said Jennifer Johnson, Director of Communications at the Center for Food Action in Englewood (CFA), N.J. “We have a hashtag, #NeighborsHelpingNeighbors. It’s a little cliché but it’s exactly that.”

Released in late February, the 2018 federal budget proposal includes $54 billion in cuts to federal agencies and an increase in defense spending. The suggested budget, presented to Congress in March, also includes a 25 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), equivalent to $193 billion, over the next ten years. This would call for a massive cost shift to states, impose more stringent eligibility requirements and reduce benefits for millions of households.

“Things are changing as we speak,” Johnson said. “I can’t say enough about the importance of SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps. Losing that will be devastating to millions of families across the country.”

Families and individuals on food stamps identify as food insecure, a term with a two-part definition defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Being food insecure can refer to the state of being either low or very low food secure. The latter reports multiple indications or disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake, whereas the former refers to reduced quality, variety or desirability of food with little to no reduced food intake.

“The simplest way to define food insecurity is that there are times throughout the week, month or any said time where you don’t feel like you have the availability to get food on your table,” said Betty Fermin, Programs Assistant at WhyHunger? in New York, N.Y. “You’re uncertain, it’s not accessible to your community or you can’t afford it. There’s no way to acquire food for yourself and your family.”

With more than 41 million people living in food insecure households, hunger is on the rise in America as a result of a converging set of factors. These include the soaring costs of food, housing and now healthcare insurance as the incumbent administration pushes to dissolve the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Combined with the threat of automation, which could eliminate as many as 800 million jobs by 2030 according to a study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute, families and individuals are struggling to make ends meet even with aid from existing federal programs.

Reaching those affected by food insecurity requires an intersectional approach, as hunger is a trans-generational issue that affects everyone from children to college students and to seniors in America and around the world.

“Hunger knows no age," Johnson said. "Hunger is profuse and it doesn’t stop.”


Photos Courtesy of USDA

While the National School Lunch Program, along with other initiatives such as After the Bell, make nutritious, reduced or free meals available to children across the country, the problem arises when they go home for the weekend and have limited or no access to food, leaving some hungry from Friday to Monday. The results: lethargic kids who are unable to focus in class and underperform on assessments.

“A hungry child can’t learn. I can’t think when I’m hungry and I’m a majored adult,” Johnson said. “Kids act out and that’s how the Weekend Snack Pack Program started.”

The Weekend Snack Pack Program of the CFA is one of the many programs offered by grassroots and social service organizations that aim to make the food options children receive at school available to them on the weekends and during holiday breaks. Five years ago, Lynne Youngblood and a group of business owners in Stillwater, Oklahoma launched Kickin’ Childhood Hunger after learning that 700 children a week in their rural community went home hungry over the weekend and had no access to food until they returned to school on Monday.

“That killed us because we’re a college town and we’re proud of what we do here,” said Youngblood, Board Member and Treasurer of Kickin’ Childhood Hunger. “We just think we’re safe here and when we saw that happens here, we just knew we had to do something.”

Interacting with them on a daily basis, school counselors and teachers are the ones who recommend that a child be placed in Weekend Food Sack Program. Open to donations year round, Kickin’ Childhood Hunger hosts its annual, invitation-only Gala where people have the opportunity to bid on auction items donated by businesses throughout Stillwater.

Photos Courtesy of Kickin' Childhood Hunger

Given that the organization has no additional expenses such as rent or salaries, 100 percent of the proceeds go straight to the children. The funds are divided between the needs of the Stillwater community and the surrounding rural communities within a 60-mile radius, where the organization provides grants to towns that need additional capital to start up or enhance existing programming.

“We’re a lot of rural, small communities around here. We’re not Oklahoma City. We’re not Tulsa,” Youngblood said. “Our whole goal is to be able to reach out to those communities and get a program started for them so that they can become self sufficient.”

Although the additional food assistance helps children meet their nutritional needs on the weekends, it can lead to problems such as bullying and public shaming. In partnerships with women at the local Methodist Church, Kickin’ Childhood Hunger attempts to avoid this problem by making the 1900 snack bags they prepare each month as low-key as possible by using regular shopping bags and putting it in the children’s lockers ahead of time.

“These children have no chance. It’s not like they can go out and get a job to get food,” Youngblood said. “Someone has to sustain them and if their parents can’t do it, then absolutely it’s going to have to be organizations that do it for them.”
Photos Courtesy of Kickin' Childhood Hunger

Providing these children with this additional assistance has proven to be positive for them both physically in terms of meeting their nutrient needs, as well as mentally.

“When we send those snacks home with them on the weekend, they’re not just feeding themselves but brothers, sisters and sometimes, entire families with their little snacks,” Youngblood said. “They learn responsibility because they know that when they go home for the weekend, they might be dividing this in five ways.”


Conversations on college campuses are expanding to include issues of food hunger and insecurity facing a growing number of students who are sometimes forced to decide between the resources they need for their exorbitantly priced education and the food they need to sustain themselves.

“I don’t think the issue of food insecurity is new,” said Timothy Miller, Associate Dean of Students and Co-Manager of The Store at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. “Our awareness of the issue is what’s new. There have been a lot of students who have been living with this for years, probably decades.”

Photo Courtesy of The Store at George Washington University
“It was always one of those jokes that, ‘I eat ramen for every meal. Haha, life is so hard,’” he continued. “But the reality is that there are people who didn’t even have ramen. We’re paying more attention to what existed.”

The existing problem of college hunger is thought to be at its worst state today, given that tuition prices are at an all time high and the average cost of in-state tuition, according to the United States Department of Labor and Statistics, is $10,691 for the 2017-2018 academic year — a figure that has tripled since 1997-1998. Another factor contributing to the heightened state of college hunger is the declining middle class that never completely recovered from the Great Recession of 2008.

For low-income families, particularly first generation students, a college degree is a promise for social mobility and institutions have noticed an all time high in college enrollment.

“At Irvine, 45 percent of our students are considered low-income and are receiving the Pell Grant,” said Andrea Gutierrez, Food Access and Security Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). “Our college demographic, particularly here, is not your traditional student coming out of high school. Increasingly, we’ve seen a lot more nontraditional students coming back to college after having been in the workforce that have more family and a lot more responsibilities.”

In an effort to better meet the needs of their students, colleges across the nation have launched food pantries on campus stocked with non-perishable foodstuff, refrigerated items and personal hygiene products. The setup of these food pantries vary depending on the resources available to the colleges and some adopt a grocery style setup with aisles and ambient music, whereas others allow student to check off the items they need and then bag it for them.

Photos Courtesy of Rutgers University, North Carolina State University and Chemeketa Community College

Stocking the food pantries is done through a combination of food drives that collect non-perishable food items and monetary donations that allow colleges to buy food through partnerships with local producers. The Store at GWU, for example, only accepts monetary donations that they then take to purchase food at $0.19 per pound at a local food bank.

“If you can give one person 20 pounds of food a year, you can really change their reality,” said Miller. “If you think about that and turn that around, you realize that 20 pounds of food is costing $4.00. That could be a really huge difference to someone and it only costs $4.00 to do it.”

Campus pantries are also expanding to offer more than just food items, recognizing students’ other needs that might be affecting their education.

“We realize that when students come to utilize the food pantry as a resource, maybe they are not going to be able to purchase those critical personal care objects so we also take them as donations and offer them to our clients,” said Brian Moran, Food Pantry Intern at Rutgers University, New Brunswick in N.J.

UCI has taken it a step further, establishing what they call to be a “basic needs hub.”

“The beauty of what’s we’ve done here is that our space is not just a pantry,” said Gutierrez. “We call it a basic needs hub because beyond the pantry, we have a community kitchen where students can make meals. We have a team of students that are doing enrollment assistance so students can come here to get help. Additionally, we’re running cooking demos and nutritionist hours so that the students can get those life skills.”

Photos Courtesy of University of California, Irvine

However, setting up the food pantry involves overcoming a series of hurdles, one of which is the speculation within the community about students potentially taking advantage of the resource.

“The example I use with other schools is that on your campus, I’m sure you have a lot of events with food buffets,” said Miller. “Well, does anyone stand at your buffet and check what you’re putting on your plate and make sure you’re not taking too much? No, we trust those students. So why would I trust students in need less than everyone else?”

Other problems food pantry coordinators have encountered is the lack of awareness about food insecurity and the existence of their pantry as a resource for students in need. But this has become something that student leaders hope to address in the future, as they continue to grow and cater to the needs of their community.

“Food insecurity has so many different levels. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is hungry,” said Thu Le, Executive Director of Feed the Pack Pantry at North Carolina State University. “What we’re working toward over the next few years is educating what is food insecurity, what are the kinds of levels and what that looks like.”

As most colleges continue to receive a positive response from their communities, the question remains: Is this enough to combat the issue of college hunger?

“It’s a Band-Aid. It’s a good start,” Johnson said. “Maybe making tuition less expensive might be another option, which I don’t think they would agree on.”


The senior population is growing in numbers, age and need. They have become the largest demographic that CFA helps, utilizing services such as diabetic food packages designed to meet the needs of people living with diabetes.

“There’s a new awareness. Senior hunger is terrible,” Johnson said. “Senior hunger will continue to rise as people age and there’s more of the generation aging and less social funding to help. It has the potential to be a terrible perfect storm of hardship.”

Decades ago, the older population had been typecast as “greedy geezers” because they were thought to have ample resources such as social security and Medicare. But that’s become a debunked myth that no longer holds true for seniors who were severely affected by the recession.

“They didn’t have anytime left to re-earn it once the economy began to turn around and it was very slow to do that,” said Peggy Ingraham, Executive Vice President of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH) based Alexandria, V.A. “A lot more people began to fall into this precarious place along the way and just haven’t really emerged from it because of the age.”

For seniors, identified by NFESH as 60 and older in accordance with the federal Senior Nutrition Program, their biggest challenge is automation. There are also too few seniors applying to the SNAP program. According to the National Council on Aging, three in five seniors who do qualify for benefits don’t sign up. This means that 5.2 million seniors are losing out on these benefits that could drastically improve their state of food security. Part of the reason behind the low enrollment rates among seniors is the challenge of filling out the application that can either be done in print or online in some states. Seniors with limited mobility and access to computers, then, are unable to apply to SNAP.

“When everything becomes cyber located, these are people who don’t have all the communication tools that other people have and certainly don’t have the ability to use them,” Ingraham said. “Those things make it lot easier but they do everything the old fashioned way.”

In contrast to other demographic groups affect by food insecurity, seniors are the least likely to emerge from the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.

“Most children in America go to school and they get school lunch. If they are indigent, they are also eligible for school breakfast. Many of them have after school programs or summer programs where they are fed. They have resources,” said Ingraham.

“Young people in the middle aged group, even if they live in what’s called a food desert — which is a horrible thing — are generally more mobile and have an ability to stretch the perimeter of their neighborhood and move out to have more access than seniors who are often homebound or physically limited by mobility issues,” she continued. “They can’t even get to food sources.”

Organizations tailored to specific demographics, such as NFESH, are not trying to place more importance on the needs of one cohort or another but are trying to raise awareness about the different types of hunger, especially ones that are largely underreported on and underserved. While senior centers have been able to provide meals to the older population, limited resources prevent them from meeting the full demand.

“We need to more globally recognize that the problem exists,” Ingraham said.

But as awareness and more information on the state of senior hunger develop, newer programs such as CFANJ’s latest Dinner 4 Seniors are put into place that provide supplemental food assistance.


Food insecurity in America and around the world has existed for decades but as the conversation continues to intensify and more attention is given to the issue, there is the potential for it to be solved permanently.

“If we begin to talk about the intersections of economic inequality, racism and healthy environments, they all intersect,” said Fermin. “We need to talk about these issues in order to one day be able to solve it.”

Securing funding, in addition to the $54 billion that would be cut under Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, is part of the solution to addressing food insecurity adequately and effectively.

“We’re trying to address the call that we see as a call for help in ways that we can and in ways that donors allow us to do so,” Johnson said.

Yet social service organizations like CFANJ aren’t the only ones restricted by their finances.

“That’s the issue across the board not just for nonprofit organizations but also for food banks and food pantries,” Ingraham said. “They’re doing what they can with what has been allotted to them.”

Regardless of the challenges they face, these grassroots and social service organizations remain committed to their work in addressing the needs of the food insecure.

“My vision is that we continue to be nimble and provide services to our clients as situations arise,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly what we have done and will continue to do.”

Created By
Mehnaz Ladha

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