November 21st, 2008
11:42 AM ET

Report: 1 in 8 Americans went hungry last year

Impact Your World: The global food market's shelves are getting bare and hunger activists say it will get worse. As the nation marks World Hunger Relief Week, more people are asking: Why are so many people starving and what, if anything, can be done to eradicate hunger? Learn how you can help


David Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

The young man, wearing a shirt and a tie, turned up just as the pantry operated by an Iowa food bank was closing for the night.

He knew it was after-hours. That’s why he was there.

He kept his gaze downward as he told the woman from the food bank that he had lost his job, had a wife and kids and was too embarrassed and ashamed to stand in line to receive a bag of groceries that hopefully would feed his family for a week.

I have a master’s degree. I shouldn’t have to do this, he said.

I heard this story last December, a few weeks before the Iowa presidential caucus.

Throughout this election season I talked with professionals and volunteers at food banks and pantries across the country.

The refrain was the same from Oregon to South Carolina, from Maine to Texas: Demand was rising, easily outstripping supply.

More and more new faces were standing in line; not looking anyone else in the eye, hoping not to be recognized by friends or neighbors.

The bitter irony for some was that once they had contributed to their local food bank. Now they needed its help.

These people did not fit the stereotype of who comes to a pantry, a shelter or a kitchen.

A lost job, an unexpected medical expense, a utility bill or difficulty paying the rent or mortgage – especially during a period of high food prices – any of these can push people into that line.

The freshest statistics, covering 2007, were served up this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

An estimated 36.2 million people struggled with some form of hunger (or, to use the government term, “food insecurity.”)

That’s 12.2 percent of the population – one in eight Americans.

Among them . . . some 691,000 children.

That was last year.

We know what direction the economic arrows point this year.

When he takes office next year, President-elect Obama will have a menu full of priorities.

There should be room for hunger on his plate.

From the perspective of professionals in the field, not enough was said on the campaign trail about hunger.

“When it comes to the political candidates, invisible is a good word,” was the assessment from Karen Ford, executive director of the Food Bank of Iowa, who pronounced herself “tremendously” disappointed.

“The folks out there believe that’s not going to be the topic that’s going to get them elected,” said Agostinho “Augie” Fernandes, then president of the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. “It’s not sexy enough,” Fernandes chuckled.

There was hunger even along the generally affluent “Main Line” of Philadelphia.

Marlo DelSordo of Philabundance, which operates the city’s largest food bank, told me about a woman whose husband lost his job as a corporate executive and, like millions of Americans caught in the mortgage industry meltdown, they were “house poor.” Appearing somewhat shell-shocked, this woman never expected to be at a pantry, receiving a handout.

“People don’t associate people in the suburbs with hunger,” DelSordo says. “But so many of the people that we help, they’re trying” even with jobs and education, to keep food on the table.

Naomi Schalit, opinion editor of the Kennebec Journal, authored a remarkable series of articles about hunger in Maine. The six months Schalit spent last year meeting the hungry and visiting food banks and pantries, changed her life. “I was guilt wracked. Here I was spending as much on one meal as some of these people had to feed themselves for a day or longer,” she told me. Schalit noticed the amount of food left uneaten at restaurants. At the grocery, she marveled at the variety, but was critical of “the energy spent in this insane, ridiculous diversity . . . I mean, who needs 14 kinds of oat flakes? We can do all this, but we can’t feed our people,” Schalit lamented.

Schalit’s heroes included Nancy Marcoux, director of the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Fairfield. The 63-year-old Marcoux remembered when Mainers were more self-sufficient. But now more and more people around her – people with jobs, with educations, but with diminished opportunities, resources and hope – were struggling. “They’ll come in and say, ‘I never thought in my life that I’d have to come to a food pantry,’” Marcoux told Schalit.

Yes, millions of tax dollars are spent to feed the hungry – by supplying food banks with surplus farm commodities, through the food stamp programs and by other means.

Yes, the food industry – which has become increasingly efficient, producing less excess – provides local communities with sizeable donations.

Yes, millions of Americans give not only money and food – but also their time. Volunteers often are as welcome as canned goods.

But the number of people in line grows steadily.

The dedicated folks who work at food banks and the agencies they serve see the human faces that represent those numbers.

They know that Thanksgiving compels more private citizens and businesses to make donations.

And they know their local news media will report on efforts to feed the less fortunate.

They just hope that after Thanksgiving the faces in those lines won’t be forgotten.

Because hunger takes no holidays.

Filed under: 360° Radar • David Schechter • Hunger
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Courtney, New Hampshire

    I'm trying to understand some of the comments left on this blog, and it seems there is some misunderstanding of the complexities that go into the condition of "hunger" and the suburban people who are experiencing it now.
    It is very easy for someone who is overweight to go hungry. The cheapest food typically is made up of carbohydrates, sugar, or is heavily processed, meaning there are typically huge amounts of empty calories, which gives the person the illusion they are full, but doesn't actually provide the right nutrients. People who are limited by budget to buying Ramen noodles, boxed mac and cheese or other cheaper options will gain large amounts of weight and be malnourished. This diet can trigger any number of problems, from vitamin deficiencies to Type 2 diabetes.

    As far as advanced educations: the education of the person influences the type of job they can get, but it depends on what is going on in the area they live or work. A Master's degree, or some other kind of advanced degree, is a worthwhile investment only if it can be used. When there is limited interest in the area of expertise, then the degree is only worth the paper it is printed on. No general interest or need for the field, no need for the specialist. For example, we presently have a huge need for nurses, but shortage of qualified personnel. Well, back in the 90's when HMO's began calling the shots, they made their money not by providing cheaper medical care: they got the savings by encouraging financial conditions at the medical facilities so that eventually the medical facilities could not afford to keep the numbers of nurses and other medical personnel on hand. Now our country is experiencing a crisis, needing qualified personnel, and there are not enough available because not enough nurses have being trained. Anyone getting into nursing or other medical fields now are responding to the upsurge in need, and will probably fare better than those people who tried to be a nurse fifteen or so years ago. Most jobs, and the demand for the specialties, fluctuate in cycles depending on what's needed or valued. Looking at the big picture this way, there are really no professions that are guaranteed to last.

    Looking back, it is easy to say there were too many MBA's or people focused on other financial degrees. But that still doesn't help those people who got the degrees, lost their jobs, and have to find enough food to eat. My MA is in clinical psychology, but the counseling field in general, I've found, is not valued as necessary or important to the general public, even though untreated mental illness costs our economy millions, if not billions of dollars per year in loss of productivity, damage to self and property, and impairment of the up and coming generations. The clinic I work for depends heavily on donations, fundraising, and government grants to keep going. That's not a secure job environment, but it's the best I've got, and for the past five years, I've planned accordingly. That doesn't mean I'm better than the millions of others who are going hungry, only that I anticipated the future employment climate more accurately. It helps us all to work together to help each other get through this downturn. We'll all be stronger for it in the long run.

    November 22, 2008 at 2:24 pm |
  2. Roman

    Although, I sympathize greatly with everyone toughing it out in these hard times, I must say that I got angry when I read this statement:

    "I have a master’s degree. I shouldn’t have to do this, he said."

    Well, I am going to go out on a limb and guess he doesn't have a Masters' degree in engineering, nursing or any of the sciences. I am going to guess his Masters' is an MBA. If that's the case, he might as well not have gone to school.

    I sympathize with the guy a little bit. When he entered school, he looked at our "debt-distorted" economy and it seemed like the most obvious and easy path to riches was to get an MBA or a finance degree.

    It was inevitable that this readjustment period would come. But perhaps if we had some leadership from government, this period could have been managed smoothly. Instead we are going to do this the hard way.

    November 21, 2008 at 2:10 pm |
  3. david aurentz

    I know hunger is a big problem. Almost daily, I give rides to people needing food handouts. The problem has been here for sveral years, but does not to seem to be getting better. I n fact, it now seems if the banks are overwhelmed by the demand

    November 21, 2008 at 2:09 pm |
  4. Mike

    Let's stop sending money to other countries to feed their hungry and concentrate on taking care of our own people. our new slogan should be USA first, world second...Sorry!

    November 21, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  5. Tim

    America is the only place i know that has "hungry" people that are over weight....

    November 21, 2008 at 1:39 pm |
  6. NL

    GF, do not be hasty or harsh. You never know what people have went through to get to a low point in their lives, even executives. I'm not an executive, but I'm a single woman who made great money. I did save money and had a wonderful 401k plan. One by one over the last 8 years, I've taken care of family members who didn't survive cancer. After that, I was out of work for over a year and had to spend my savings to keep a roof over me and my children's head. I sold stuff and did odd jobs, however, sometimes it costs more money to go flip burgers than to keep looking for a living wage. Thank Heavens, I found a job before I had to move out of my apartment. I was one of the lucky ones for sure. So sometimes, it's not one quick jump from having a large salary to needing the food bank. Just my $.02.

    November 21, 2008 at 1:25 pm |
  7. Court

    I agree- hunger will not take a holiday. When you're hungry there is no room for an ego, especially if you have mouths to feed. I really hope we take a huge lesson from this. I can't imaging anyone hungry refusing to take food because a gay, black, Mexican, republican person contributed it.

    November 21, 2008 at 12:58 pm |
  8. GF, Los Angeles

    I wonder how many of those executives (who more than likely made six figures) actually saved any of that money. Apparently none if they're in line at a food bank. I honestly don't have any sympathy for those who live in the suburbs who lived beyond their means and never saved for a downturn.

    To me the food bank is for families who were overwhelmed with medical bills or those that were barely making enough to get by but with the increase in food/gas prices they're unable to make ends meet for their family. Those executives need to sell their fancy material possessions in their house and take a lower paying job – even if it means flipping burgers Masters degree or not.

    November 21, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  9. Annie Kate

    When I was first married and had my first two children, we were so very poor that I was often at the food bank. I cut coupons, grew a garden, froze vegetables, did meatless dinners – anything and everything to put some food on the table. Those food banks were full of good people – good people that needed help and good people giving help. I have been forever grateful for the helping hand I received back then and I realize that there may come a day when I will need it again.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    November 21, 2008 at 11:56 am |
  10. Joanne, Syracuse, NY

    My son has a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology. I just wrote a check for thousands to send him to school, a one year program for Licensed Practical Nurse....it is probably the best investment I've made in 2 years!

    November 21, 2008 at 11:49 am |
  11. Cindy

    Georgia has been one of the states hit hardest with job losses because we have a lot of factories here. So the food banks here are working over time trying to keep up with the demand for food from those who in normal times wouldn't need it.

    I just hate to see how it's going to get on down the line if the economy gets any worse...which I think it will.


    November 21, 2008 at 11:46 am |