By Lindsay Rasmussen
Over 50 million Americans were living in food insecure households in 2011 (Hunger and Poverty, 2011). Included in this statistic were 16.7 million children and 1 million seniors living alone. In spite of this alarming data, few of us know what food insecurity actually means. The USDA has defined three tiers of food insecurity. A food-insecure household is one in which finances are stretched so thin that the family members do not know when they will have their next meal. Low food security defines households where at least one family member goes hungry at times. And hunger means that a family is completely without a source of food.
Food-insecure households increased by 60 percent between 2007 and 2011, a statistic that almost mirrors the rate of unemployment for the same time frame. Unfortunately, the citizens of Washington have fared worse than the average American. While nationally, one in six adults and one in five children were facing food insecurity, in Washington State one in five adults and one in four children were dealing with the same reality. One in four children in our community is unable to meet minimum daily nutritional requirements. And it is a modern paradox that those who have the least food to eat have the highest rates of obesity within our general population. This is related to numerous barriers faced by those with limited incomes, including a higher cost for and limited availability of healthy foods.
Fortunately, Washington State has streamlined the process for participation in food assistance programs. Approximately 95 percent of Washingtonians eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are receiving benefits. SNAP is the current version of the Food Stamp program that began in 1964. SNAP is the primary safety net for America’s low-income population. Unfortunately, federal and state funding for SNAP has not kept pace with the need. Given our current federal and state funding crisis, it is possible that funding will be cut for this vital program.
Being a SNAP recipient does not mean a family eats luxuriously. The average monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four is $668. This equates to $1.85 per person, per meal, in a 30-day month. Each individual is given the dollar equivalent of a latte and a muffin to provide nutrition for the entire day. This is why many families on SNAP also rely heavily on community food banks. Food banks are the backstop for those dealing with food insecurity. The key difference between the local food bank and the SNAP program is that food banks rely upon community support. The Sky Valley Food Bank serves as the emergency food provider in our community. In 2011 the Sky Valley Food Bank served 4,413 individuals, a majority of whom required regular assistance from the food bank. The 2010 census estimated the total population of Monroe at 17,000 people. These data suggest that, on average, 26 percent of our community required supplemental food assistance in 2011. This was an increase in need of approximately 10 percent from the prior year.
Hunger and food insecurity have huge implications economically, medically and socially. This topic requires a more in-depth discussion than this forum allows. But it is critical that we begin to recognize what hunger in America looks like. It does not look like a frail child with a swollen belly. It looks like one of every four children getting off of the school bus each day. It looks like one in five adults at the post office. It looks like our neighbors and our friends. It is an invisible epidemic that we can help stop.
While we cannot individually speed up our country’s economic recovery, we can help protect our community by contacting our legislators and asking that they support increasing federal funding for SNAP. And, we can individually make a difference in our community by contributing whatever we can afford to our local food bank. Recognizing that people need to eat every month, we can help with a monthly contribution to our community’s safety net. Doing so will help those on the front lines of hunger insure that our neighbors have the support they need when they need it.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little,” Franklin D. Roosevelt.