’Tis the Season to Be Food-Insecure

Not everyone has enough to eat this holiday season, and there’s a reason.

A volunteer hands out free turkeys in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 26, 2013.
A volunteer hands out free turkeys in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nov. 26, 2013. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It is a strange and ironic truth that in the world’s richest democracy, many Americans are going to work in the morning, but they and their families are going to bed hungry at night.

As Christmas fast approaches, and the warming memories of Thanksgiving dinner give way to yet another work week, it is a humbling reminder—and a necessary one—that not all of us have much to be thankful for this holiday season.

According to research compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture 14.9 percent of Americans are food-insecure. This accounts for 50 million Americans—around one in six—living in a household that is at risk of hunger. And of those, 17 million are children.

And Congress just made it worse.

On Nov. 1, food-stamp benefits shrunk by an average 5 percent for recipients, when the boost in benefits from President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended. House Republicans have aggressively campaigned against extending these benefits, despite the fact that many of their own constituents—who are largely white, and mostly Southern—depend on food stamps to support themselves and their families.

They’re cutting benefits at a time that the number of people in need is increasing exponentially: A 2011 report by the USDA found that 5.5 percent of Americans, or nearly 17 million, suffered “very low food security,” which meant they had to skip meals or not eat for a day. That reflected a rise of 800,000 over the prior year.

In a Gallup poll conducted in August of this year, 20 percent of U.S. adults said that they didn’t have enough money to buy the food their family needed at some point in the past year—worse than Britain, Germany and China.

And food insecurity isn’t colorblind. In 2012, one in three African-American children lived in food-insecure households, compared to one in six white children. And of the 10 counties with the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, all were at least 65 percent African American and—intriguingly—all in “red” Republican states.

But the most curious finding of all is this: Five out of the 96 majority African-American counties with the highest rates of food insecurity also fell into the top 10 percent of counties with the highest food cost index, the average cost per meal being $3.07, as compared with the national average of $2.67.