America's real hunger game: 50 million in crisis

Homeless free meal hunger
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In the richest country in the world, nearly 1 in 6 Americans go to bed hungry.

As the holiday season of giving approaches, the slow recovery from the 2008 recession and cuts in the government's anti-hunger programs have only put more children and seniors at risk, advocates for the poor and hungry say.

Corporations are finding more creative ways to help fight the scourge, but the number of hungry has risen, percolating up into the middle class and sparking fears for the welfare of aging baby boomers.

"It's tragic. Since 2007 it has increased dramatically," said Bob Aiken, CEO of Feeding America, one of the biggest nonprofit organizations battling hunger.

"The recession drove the increase as unemployment climbed. But even as the economyimproves now, people are working to get by and still are unable to provide enough food for their families," he said. "There is a lot of food in America, but hunger in the developed world looks different from the underdeveloped world. We are working to stop food going to waste."

The Food Bank For New York City says it is serving more middle-class families and workers earning more than federal poverty standards. "There has been an 18 percent increase in food prices since the recession, but salaries have not risen," said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City.

She said that in addition, cuts in so-called food stamp federal subsidies, now known as SNAP, had reduced the number of meals it served this year. Last year the bank served about 70 million meals, compared to around 50 million in 2008.


Changing demographics

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 49.1 million people living in this country in what it euphemistically refers to as "food insecurity." Some 17 million households fall under this bureaucratic definition—"uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources." But the USDA says an additional 17.5 million households had low or very low food security in 2013.

Aiken noted that the number of Americans suffering "food insecurity" has risen from 36 million in 2007, before the recession hit. Feeding America served 3.2 billion meals last year, he told CNBC in a telephone interview from Chicago.

"It's the highest ever recorded," said Aiken, whose organization has been helping the hungry for the last 35 years. Of the 46 million helped last year by Feeding America, there were about 12 million children and 7 million seniors, he said. "In the majority of households, there is somebody working, but they are still not able to make ends meet. Quite often there is not enough to buy food.

Hundreds of volunteers gather next to the Epworth United Church in Denver on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, to continue the legacy of Daddy Bruce Randolph who fed people on Thanksgiving.
Kathryn Scott Osler | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Hundreds of volunteers gather next to the Epworth United Church in Denver on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, to continue the legacy of Daddy Bruce Randolph who fed people on Thanksgiving.

"Increasingly, working people do not have enough. A lack of growth in real wages means they have trouble stretching their dollars," Aiken said.

Who are the hungry in America in 2014? It is the poor in the inner cities, as well as those living in rural areas, where there are few jobs; it's the old living on fixed incomes and the immigrants who pour across the southern border, many of them unaccompanied children fleeing poverty and crime in central America.

"There is hunger in every community," said Aiken. "The majority of the meal gap is in urban areas, but it's also significant in rural America."

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"The need is quite high in the southwest states, but I don't know if you can attribute it directly to immigration, although Texas is quite high."

As for seniors?"There is going to be an increase in the tsunami of seniors at risk. Many are retiring without building enough assets for retirement," Aiken warned.

That concern was echoed by Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of the North Texas Food Bank. "This country is not prepared for baby boomer hunger," she told CNBC.

She said her food bank, based in Dallas, saw a 35 percent jump in the number of cases it has helped since the recession, and even though it served 62 million meals last year, it is still 30 million short of the number it estimates are needed. It has launched a 10-year plan to increase its operational capacity. "We need 30 million more meals and 25,000 more volunteers."

Even though Texas has seen an increase in immigration, both legal and illegal, Pruitt said the major factor driving hunger in that region is because Dallas is a magnet for people looking for jobs.

"People have the perception that there are jobs in Texas; there are, but the biggest problem is underemployment," said Pruitt. "People who have lived in poverty have a coping strategy, but we are seeing a middle class of working poor."

"Wages are stagnant, and people do not have enough to pay," she said of the region in which 18.5 percent of the population is considered food insecure.

"The majority of the meal gap is in urban areas, but it's also significant in rural America." -Bob Aiken, CEO, Feeding America

The Food Bank For New York estimates some 1.4 million people—mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities—rely on soup kitchens and food pantries in America's largest city of 8.4 million.

"We have had to pump it up and work more with our corporate partners," said Purvis. In addition to donating food and money, more companies are getting involved more in alleviating the poverty that causes hunger in the first place. For example, Citi volunteers helped some of the hungry file their tax returns.

"We are doing more free taxes as more of the hungry are working," said Purvis. "We were able to get $88 million in refunds last year for the hungry."

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Delta Airlines is helping feed mouths in New York City through its South Bronx Initiative, she said. The airline chose to set up a pantry in the poor section after Purvis told executives of a couple of women who had walked with their children miles to the Food Bank's warehouse at Hunt's Point because a facility in their own neighborhood had closed in the recession. "The recession hit poor neighborhoods the hardest, and now Delta has made the South Bronx a jewel in our crown."

She also cited Bank of America, which created a project called Food Bank To Go. "They purchased the food and supplies, packaged it up and told us where to deliver it. For three days they had nearly 1,000 employees rolling up their sleeves and packing it up for Thanksgiving!" Purvis said.

"We want out partners to be part of the solution," she said, although the Food Bank still has corporate partners helping in traditional ways, such as paying for a certain amount of food or, like Target, donating food it cannot keep on its shelves because there might be a slight "ding" in the can or a ripped box.

Purvis said some executives are also donating publicly traded securities, such as stocks to Food Bank For New York City to gain tax advantages. Securities that have increased in value and have been owned for more than a year and a day can be directly transferred rather than selling them first in order to avoid paying capital gains tax.

Aiken said another issue is that people in need tend to buy the cheapest food possible, which is not necessarily the most nutritious. He said that about 25 percent of the meals his organization served last year, consisted of fruits and vegetables.

"We are rushing to get more," he said. "A lot of fruits and vegetables go unharvested, and we are working with farmers [to get more donated]."

New York's Purvis agreed, saying the food bank moved 18 million pounds of fresh produce last year, much of it donated by vendors at the Hunt's Point wholesale market in the Bronx.

"This is one of the biggest changes—this demand for fresh produce—which is usually unaffordable for poor families."

Founder of FEED, Lauren Bush Lauren, attends Feeding America Hosts Bi-Coastal Celebrity Volunteer Event at Food Bank for New York City’s Community Kitchen & Food Pantry on December 11, 2014, in New York City.
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Founder of FEED, Lauren Bush Lauren, attends Feeding America Hosts Bi-Coastal Celebrity Volunteer Event at Food Bank for New York City’s Community Kitchen & Food Pantry on December 11, 2014, in New York City.

That means new standards for food banks. "There are strict federal laws. For example, canned fruit cannot be in syrup, or string beans must be low-sodium," Purvis said. "We made a choice, too. No junk food and no sodas. I won't take Cheetos, as I know I can't move them, and I will not give out bags of chips."

Feeding America operates a network of 200 food banks across the country, each of which distributes food through pantries and soup kitchens where they are needed. The charity's full-time staff is supported by some 2 million volunteers. "Volunteers are a key aspect; the other is how much food is donated," Aiken said.

Feeding America depends also on its partnerships with some of the biggest names in corporate America, including major food retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger and Target.

"Our representatives stop by them each week to get donations," he said. "And we never take any food I wouldn't feed my own family."

Feeding America also gets donations from food manufacturers such as General Mills, Kellogg's and Kraft and companies such as the fruit giant Del Monte.


Unilever, the personal care products and food conglomerate, is one of Feeding America's biggest partners. Over the past five years, with brands like Lipton, Hellmann's and Ben and Jerry's, Unilever has contributed more than 17 million pounds of products and $3.3 million to help Feeding America.

It is a part of the company's Project Sunlight global initiative for sustainable living and includes its share-a-meal program, encouraging children to do what they can to help alleviate hunger around the world.

Such action by corporations can also enhance their image as well as pleasing shareholders pressing for more corporate responsibility, Aiken noted.

"Fighting hunger is one of the causes with a strong public/private partnership," he said.