Why are people with jobs going hungry?

The promise of a meritocracy is a simple one: Each individual will be compensated in proportion to his or her labor. The abilities, skillsets and opportunities of these individuals may vary, but each can rest assured knowing that honest, hard work will amount to a life in which one's daily needs are met, with potential for a better future.

In a country that promises opportunity, shouldn't someone who is working hard—sometimes even at multiple jobs—have the assurance of access to healthy food for his or her family?

Lauren Bush Lauren
Source: Roger Moenks
Lauren Bush Lauren

It is hard to believe that in the United States, 49 million Americans are food insecure. This means one in six people does not know where his or her next meal is coming from. Think about the last time you were hungry. Were you tired? Did you have trouble focusing on the task at hand? Did your empty stomach negatively affect other areas of your physical well-being?

Now, think about the face that comes to mind when you think of "the hungry." For a long time, the face I saw was the homeless man who asked for change on my subway commute. I am not suggesting his face shouldn't come to mind. But I do want to probe our national consciousness to see a few other faces when we think of the one in six: a hard working single mother denying herself her medication so she can buy groceries for her family, a child unable to focus at school, or even a member of our military struggling to keep his family fed while serving our country.

Last fall, I was honored to be a spokesperson for Feeding America's release of the Minding the Meal Gap study. I learned a lot about the reality of hunger in America from pouring over the findings. I wasn't surprised by many of the results after working in food-aid activism for a decade, but I was shocked when I learned about the trade-offs millions of working families are forced to make every day in our nation. Right now, working poor are making decisions about whether to eat or pay rent; whether to feed their children or buy their own medicine; whether to eat breakfast before work, or keep the heat on later that night.

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What is most shocking is that the majority of these people are actively participating in our meritocracy, and it is failing them. According to Feeding America's 2014 research, 54 percent of food-insecure households in America have had someone in the labor force in the past year. Of the 49 million Americans struggling with food insecurity, millions of them are working hard every day. Many are putting in the same number of hours on the job as you and I are, if not more. And they are still struggling with the most basic of human needs. Two primary issues come into play when talking about food insecurity.

The first is the glaring shortcoming of minimum wage standards in our country. This spring, we saw thousands of minimum wage workers protesting for a living wage. It is time for Corporate America to make sure that no one on their payrolls needs to visit a food bank or apply for government assistance to supplement wages that don't last through the month.

The second issue is linked to a shortcoming in national policies that determine who is eligible to receive food aid. The same study from Feeding America revealed that more than a quarter of food-insecure individuals are technically above the poverty line and ineligible for most food-assistance programs. Many of these families are living in metropolitan areas with incomes higher than the national average.

When it comes to the conversation around food access, this is a population that often gets overlooked. Their incomes, according to our federal standards, should be more than enough to get by. So why are these working families unable to afford the most basic of needs? The answer is tied to the dated policies that continue to keep the underemployed from receiving the aid they need to live in high-cost cities.

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During my time as a Meal Gap spokesperson, I learned poverty line thresholds have mostly remained unchanged since 1963. At that time, the income ceiling to determine if government aid was needed was set by multiplying food costs for a "bare bones" subsistence meal plan by three. Obviously, family budgets today look very different than they did 50 years ago. So why is this still the way our government determines if someone is eligible for food aid?

I realize it is easy to point fingers at companies and government for overlooking the working poor. While we should continue to demand shifts in policies from both of these sectors, there is an even more important shift that must take place in all of us as American citizens. We must stop thinking of hunger as an "us and them" issue and start realizing that it is our own neighbors who are silently struggling. The hard truth about meritocracy is that ultimately, if one of us is being harmed by a system that boasts fairness as its bedrock, we are all in trouble. It is time that every American's hard work is met with wages and policies that ensure he or she not just survive, but thrive.

Lauren Bush Lauren is the founder and CEO of FEED, a social business that uses a portion of its proceeds to provide meals for needy children and families around the globe. Follow her on Twitter @laurenblauren