Sherry Byrum, 48, works full time at a day care centre in Spokane Valley, Washington, earning about $9 an hour. She and her husband, who is unable to work because of heart surgery, live in a 30-year old mobile home. They get groceries at a local food bank, but there have been occasions when the couple has gone several days without eating. “We’ve got to pay our bills,” Byrum says. “I can’t buy us the things we should eat because of our diabetes. There are some times I go to bed in tears thinking I just can’t do it all.”
Wyoming resident Mary sets out from her home every day to collect discarded wooden pallets. Despite debilitating pain from spinal arthritis, she then uses an axe to chop them into firewood. Like many senior citizens across the country, her social security payments do not cover her medical expenses, or her household and fuel expenses. Mary, who is also diabetic, visits the Salvation Army Food Pantry in Casper for a food box.
Gloria Muniz, 45, from New York, is a single mother struggling to provide for her eight children and two nephews, all under the age of 16. Unable to work, Muniz relies on social security, public assistance and food stamps to get by. After all the bills are paid, she has about $20 left in her purse each month to spend on food and other essentials such as school supplies for her children. “But they don’t last me very long, says Muniz.” The upshot: the family often goes hungry.
Like these families, there are over 35 million Americans — nearly as many as live in California — who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Job losses, home foreclosures, and other recent crises have been truly life altering for Americans, with one in eight people struggling with hunger.
This is official data and experts say the real figure could be higher. “The numbers have been provided by the US Department of Agriculture,” says Ross Fraser of Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity that provides food assistance to more than 25 million low-income people facing hunger in the US.
Over the years, the number of people showing up hungry at food pantries and soup kitchens in the US has surged, with more than a thousand operating in New York alone. Requests are so high that some food centers nationwide are turning away the hungry.
What makes the demand so striking is not only the suddenness, but also the demographic that is seeking help. For instance, most of the newcomers that show up at Feeding America’s centers have been employed and have managed to survive dips in the job market. Many of them are couples and single parents who had managed without handouts.
Hunger is a significant problem, according to annual reports issued by the United States Department of Agriculture. Around 11 per cent of people live in households where they may not have enough money to put adequate food on the table – that’s 35.5 million Americans.
Among them are 11 million who say their situation is so grim they sometimes don’t eat for an entire day because they can’t afford to. Worse, hunger is an everyday reality for 12 million American children.
“We soon will have the most food stamps recipients in the history of our country,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. All across the country, from LA to Detroit to New York, it seems the soup kitchen lines are getting longer. "Right now they are really fighting for their lives," says global economic analyst Alan Bragman.
A recent USDA report says more than a third of these households "had very low food security — meaning that the food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food."
So why does a country that spends more on its military than the next 11 nations combined have so many people in such dire straits? How can so many starve in a country that has bought 185 F-22 stealth fighters at $361m a pop?
According to a USDA official, hunger is very much a hidden problem. "When you walk by people who may be hungry, it's not necessarily evident they're hungry."This is something that low-income people don't talk about a great deal."
Worse, the US government does not want to talk about this nagging problem. What most people would describe as going hungry, the USDA couches in the euphemism “food insecure.”
Deaths caused by malnutrition and plain hunger are passed off by hospitals and coroners as “natural causes” or “failure of bodily organs”.
Also, the US has been loath to admit to such gaping holes in its socio-economic fabric. As many 7.3 million Americans reportedly died of starvation during the Great Depression, a fact that lies buried in US census data, but which the government has airbrushed out of official records. Here is what a child wrote during those years: “We changed our usual food for something more available. We used to eat bush leaves instead of cabbage. We ate frogs too. My mother and my older sister died in a year.”