America's dirty little secret: 42 million people are suffering from hunger

While families across the country gather around the dinner table during this holiday season, there is a different, far less cheery scenario playing out for millions of other Americans. They're the ones who go hungry, and for whom food — and enough of it — is a daily struggle. According to Feeding America, more than 42 million people now suffer from hunger throughout the nation.

In the midst of a recovering economy, low unemployment and nearly nonexistent inflation, the fact remains that nearly 1 in 7 Americans still goes to bed hungry each night. According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15.8 million U.S. households — that's 12.7 percent of the total — didn't have enough food to eat at some point last year, the latest period for which numbers are available.

That's a tick down from the 14 percent of households that didn't have adequate food (or what the USDA defines as "food insecure") in 2014, but the numbers are still higher than where they were just a decade ago. Adding to the crisis is the fact that by the end of this year, up to 1 million Americans will have lost food-stamp benefits because of changes in the law that affect eligibility.

Statistics tell the story. Last year the government doled out $74 billion in food-assistance benefits — about double the level of 2008. According to experts, hunger remains a persistent problem because millions of Americans are struggling financially as the result of the crash, and many remain unemployed. A whopping 95 million Americans are now not in the workforce, according to the November jobs report. While many are retirees, a skills gap and other factors are exacerbating the trend.

As a result, food banks, soup kitchens, churches and other emergency food providers across the country say they're seeing greater demand than ever. Perhaps more disturbing: An increasing number of working-poor families and the elderly are using these emergency services.

"There's still this idea that food banks and soup kitchens are only for the homeless, and that simply is not the case," said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, one of the largest and most active food banks in the country. "In fact, many people are pretty much relying on these resources so that they don't wind up homeless."

Among the most vulnerable in this climate are children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research group that focuses on reducing poverty, 20 million children in the United States (nearly 1 in 4) will have received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — better known as food stamps — in 2016. With access to the food these benefits provide, experts say these children are more likely to do better in school, have better health and do better economically as adults than children that live in chronically food-insecure households.

Low-income residents select free bread and produce at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey on August 28, 2015 in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
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Low-income residents select free bread and produce at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey on August 28, 2015 in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

If the economic recovery has proved anything, it's that not everyone healed in quite the same way and, in fact, millions of Americans are still struggling financially. That disparity is among the top reasons why hunger remains such an intractable problem. Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, the national food bank network that provides food assistance to about 46 million people each year, says this uneven recovery hits the poorest Americans especially hard. "When the economy gets into trouble, you see people at the low end of the earnings spectrum be the first to suffer," he said, "and they're the last ones for whom life gets better once the economy improves."

Evidence of that scenario is nationwide. What Fraser hears over and over again from Feeding America's food banks is that while more people are working again, "those numbers disguise the fact that so many of these jobs are paying minimum wage or slightly above," he said. "Without a good income it's a real struggle to feed a family."

Indeed, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that between 2000 and 2015, wages for the bottom 60 percent of male workers were flat or declined and that most of the wage gains have occurred among the highest earners. David Lee, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin, part of the Feeding America network, puts it another way: "A good-paying job is the best antidote to hunger."

Yolanda Vega, 48, knows that all too well. The single mom lives in the East Harlem section of New York City with her 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. She lost her job as a home health aide in October and is now receiving SNAP benefits. "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have food stamps," she said. "At least with this, I have money to buy food for my kids."

She gets a little more than $500 a month and manages to make it last by buying just what the family needs. Occasionally, she's able to buy fresh vegetables and fruit at a local farmer's market, where through her SNAP benefits, she gets an extra $2 for every $5 she spends. "I want to work again, but right now without these food stamps, I would not survive," she stressed.

"A good-paying job is the best antidote to hunger." -David Lee, Feeding Wisconsin executive director

Adding to the hunger crisis are changes taking place at the federal and state levels. Eligibility for benefits from SNAP are tightening for some groups or being slashed completely for others. Most unemployed, able-bodied adults without dependents — often referred to as ABAWDs — are limited to three months of benefits every three years, unless they are working 20 hours per week or participating in a job-training program. During the recession, when unemployment was high and job-training programs were scarce, states were able to request waivers for these work requirements, and many governors did just that.

Now, however, the USDA — the government agency that oversees food stamps programs — reports that more than 40 states will implement the time limits in at least some areas of the state, meaning that millions of people who had been eligible for food stamps no longer are. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that at least 500,000 to 1 million Americans will have lost food-stamp benefits by the end of this year as the time limits go back into place.

Wisconsin is among the states already operating without a waiver. Lee of Feeding Wisconsin says that his state took a release from the time-limit waiver in 2014 and, as a result, 120,000 ABAWDs lost their food stamp eligibility. The official stance of the state for this move, said Lee, was that "this was the kick in the butt these people needed to get back to work."

The problem with that argument, he says, is that ABAWDs are often the most marginally employable people to begin with. "Some have physical or mental disabilities that aren't diagnosed, which makes finding and keeping a job difficult," Lee explained. Furthermore, often the training that's provided doesn't really prepare them for the jobs that are out there.

Other states go beyond the work requirements. Missouri passed a law earlier this year that reduces residents' participation in SNAP from four to five years, and in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has threatened to overhaul or completely cease administering the food-stamp program because he believes it is a waste of public money.

States lend a helping hand

But some states are going in the opposite direction. When the 2014 Farm Bill cut SNAP benefits by billions of dollars, 53,000 New York residents could have lost their food-stamp benefits. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was able to adjust the state's budget so that the cuts were never felt. To put that into context, the Food Bank for New York City's Purvis says if the SNAP funding cuts had gone through in New York, it would have "wiped out the amount of food it takes us all year to put out."

The governor also changed the eligibility threshold for SNAP benefits from 130 percent of the poverty line to 150 percent so that more households could get help. "These are not political moves," Purvis said. "They are changes that recognize the reality of poverty and hunger today and that more working families need help to put food on the table."

Of course, when the federal government and states make changes to hunger programs, it has a direct and hard-hitting impact on the groups that act as a safety net. It also forces them to become more creative and resourceful in how they respond. Feeding America, for example, recently rolled out a new initiative called Meal Connect. Funded with a $1.6 million grant from Google, the online program enables smaller amounts of food to be rescued that might otherwise go to waste.

A family walking home with bags of food after a food distribution by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Mobile Food Pantry in Oswego, New York.
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A family walking home with bags of food after a food distribution by the Food Bank of the Southern Tier Mobile Food Pantry in Oswego, New York.

For instance, if a small butcher shop has 10 pounds of ground beef available at the end of the day, it can now log on to see which nearby food bank or pantry can use it and make arrangements for someone to pick it up. "Rescuing all these small amounts of food can really add up," said Feeding America's Fraser, who notes that the program is now in the midst of being beta-tested as an app. He estimates that since Meal Connect began earlier this year, it has rescued 200 million pounds of food.

Corporate white knights

Feeding America is also expanding its partnerships with retailers such as Target, Safeway, Sam's Club and others to rescue food that is nearing its expiration date. As the organization improves and increases its own capacity, Fraser says it can effectively work with these large retailers and in fact has rescued nearly 1 billion pounds of food that it can distribute to its food banks.

Similarly, in the spring, the Food Bank for New York City launched a program called Green Sidewalks that brings fresh produce to neighborhoods that otherwise couldn't afford it. "We were noticing that even though we have fresh produce to distribute, some of the pantries and food banks we work with weren't taking it because they just don't have the refrigeration to store it," Purvis said. Now, with money from corporate donors, her group is able to bring that fresh produce directly to the neighborhoods and distribute it right from refrigerated trucks.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect in the fight against hunger is the commitment that no matter how great the demand, the organizations responding to this crisis manage to stay one step ahead.

Says Purvis: "The need for food can be high, but if we have an ability to hit this problem with dynamic solutions and a mixed approach, we can truly move the needle on hunger."

This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness