IT’S the season for giving — more people donate to charity now than the rest of the year. They provide gifts to young children who would otherwise go without when they wake up on Christmas morning; they buy an extra turkey for a family in need or donate to a local food bank. These are great and wonderful traditions.
But hunger, unfortunately, knows no season. For many, hunger is not an abstract notion, but a daily reality. Almost 690,000 Western Washington residents still experience hunger, missing 112 million meals a year. Out of all the people my nonprofit Food Lifeline serves, 35 percent are children and 15 percent are seniors.
These numbers come from our biannual Missing Meals report, a research study that measures the current state of hunger in Western Washington. It showed a large and growing hunger problem. It’s one that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps — food banks, food distributors, meal programs and others are working together to solve.
The Great Recession and resulting unemployment and wage stagnation have made it particularly difficult for even working families to make ends meet.
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The need for emergency food assistance has increased 39 percent since the recession began in 2007. Almost 6 million people collected food in Washington in 2007. This year, more than 8 million people went through the doors of their local food bank.
It’s not just the homeless or unemployed who need food assistance. Forty-seven percent of people who use food banks make enough to stay off public assistance but not enough to fully feed themselves. While these people aren’t eligible for food stamps, they still must decide between paying utilities or buying groceries, and choosing between medication or food.
What about the safety net? Food stamps, school lunches, shelter meals and food banks do provide 85 percent of meals for the very poor.
These programs are working — so far. Congress is proposing deep cuts in the food-stamp program, ranging from $4.5 billion in the U.S. Senate to $40 billion in the U.S. House. It could result in cuts for the 1 million Washington residents who rely on food stamps. These cuts could mean much longer lines at food banks that already struggle to feed everyone waiting.
Our region’s 275 food programs are doing a great job of leveraging their limited infrastructure to close the gap, even as the number of hungry people grow.
Food Lifeline’s food redirection programs with farms, restaurants, grocery stores and food manufacturers reduced more food waste every year, while bringing 31 million pounds of nutritious food to hungry people last year.
And there is more that we can do together to continue to close the gap over the entire year.
The solution to address this growing need is to build capacity at food banks, meal programs and shelters throughout Western Washington to accept, store and distribute more food. It’s about warehousing, distribution and food diversion — the infrastructure that few people think about, but is necessary to meet the scale of the problem.
Everyone can do something about hunger throughout the entire year: You can volunteer at a food bank, donate money or food to a food bank, or raise awareness with your friends and neighbors.
Monthly giving, versus one gift during the holidays, smooths out the bumps in hunger-relief efforts. And finally, you can continue to speak out for stronger safety-net programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which are a critical part of a comprehensive response to hunger.
Together, we can make the next Missing Meals report a brighter story and keep people fed all year long.
Linda Nageotte is CEO and president of Food Lifeline, a nonprofit organization that works to end hunger in Western Washington.