President Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act) while press and supporters of the bill look on. [LBJ Library photo #C661-4-WH64 by Cecil Stoughton.]

Hunger in Plain Sight

Nov 28, 2012

by Mark Bittman

[posted on The New York Times Opinion Pages on November 27, 2012]

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people

Like many other food banks, Oklahoma’s, says executive director Rodney Bivens, has made a commitment to serve every single person in need in its area; put that together with that state’s geography, and it might give you pause. Similarly, God’s Love We Deliver (not technically a food bank), which provides over a million cooked meals a year to sick people in the five boroughs and the Newark area, has seen its numbers nearly double in the last six years because, as Karen Pearl, the president and C.E.O. told me, “We are never going to have a waiting list and are never going to turn people away.”

And because poverty is growing.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs brought the poverty level down to 11 percent from 20 percent in less than 10 years. Ronald Reagan began the process of dismantling that minimal safety net, and as a result the current poverty level is close to 16 percent, and food stamps are not fully doing their job. “There was a time in this country,” says Maryland Food Bank president and C.E.O. Deborah Flateman, “when food stamps had practically eliminated hunger; then the big cuts happened, and we’ve been trying to recover ever since.” read more