More Than a Holiday Wish: Ending Hunger in America (Ms. Magazine)
This piece originally appeared in Ms. Magazine on December 12, 2022.
For many Americans, the holiday season brings family celebrations, spirituality, culinary indulgences and moments of reflection. The holiday season offers an opportunity for many Americans to give back—amid overflowing tables and holiday meals are familiar scenes of people generously giving their time and resources to local food banks, serving holiday meals to those who lack resources to fill their own tables.
The painful, shameful truth is that widespread hunger persists in America year-round.
- 13.5 million households—more than 10 percent of Americans—struggle with food insecurity.
- Children across the country go to school unable to focus on learning because they lack enough nutritious food.
- Nearly 25 percent of Indigenous households struggle with food insecurity.
- Hunger is a daily reality for about one-quarter of military families, who are more diverse than ever before and for whom compensation and policies designed for single young men have become inadequate.
- A shocking 30 percent of single mothers and their children live in poverty.
In short, hunger in this country remains a national disgrace, and one that is all too female in nature. The “feminization of poverty” not only persists—it has grown. Women dominate service sector jobs, which are historically undervalued and underpaid. Affordable childcare remains elusive, and the well-intentioned gender neutralizing of these struggles means that our policies fail to meet the unique needs of women and their children.
We need the political will of our nation’s leaders to pursue robustly funded national policies that feed the hungry while strategically addressing the systemic social inequities rooted in hunger, including those born of systemic sexism and racism.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
In 1969, the first White House conference on hunger—the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health—led to the expansion of federal food programs that to this day offer a critical safety net when troubled times strike the most vulnerable. This conference led to the broad national expansion of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and free school meals, dawning an age of unprecedented progress against hunger and malnutrition.
Sadly, the 1980s reversed that progress. Draconian policies of federal aid cutbacks fueled by racist and sexist welfare queen tropes, the introduction of “work-fare,” low-wage jobs and corporate takeovers of our food and farming industries propelled a rise in those without regular access to nutritious food, particularly female-headed households. Financial crises like the 2008 housing market collapse, and the more recent global pandemic and spiking inflation, have only pushed more people to the brink amid widening income inequality.
This fall, the Biden-Harris administration took a big step in the right direction by holding the second-ever White House conference on hunger. For one of the first times, our leaders began to view the social safety net as interconnected—noting that people’s lives are not disconnected, and neither are their needs. If single mothers struggle because of childcare challenges, being segregated into low-paying jobs and often losing their housing as victims of domestic violence, should not our solutions to what is impoverishing them also be connected?
The recent White House conference generated tens of millions of dollars in private and public pledges, with the goal of ending hunger in America by 2030. But we are keenly mindful that a one-day conference and big promises will not suffice.
Now, the critical work of digging into the root causes of hunger must begin. Now comes the real, difficult work of asking the challenging questions that identify—and address—the underlying causes of hunger in America. Questions like: Why do single mothers face food insecurity at twice the national average? Why are Black families nearly twice as likely to experience hunger as white families?
Resolving to End Hunger for All
During the pandemic, we all saw news reports of long lines at over-burdened food pantries. In moments of crisis, our robust charitable sector supports on-the-ground triage in the war on hunger. And we also know that swiftly enacted pandemic expansions of SNAP, WIC and other key federal programs provided a front-line defense that kept even more people from having to rely on food pantries.
Overwhelming data, reports and stories of hunger in America confirm that not only is the problem pervasive, but also that our leaders are aware of the extent of this crisis. And the effectiveness of federal nutrition programs, the temporary changes in childcare support and other measures during the pandemic make clear that our leaders clearly understand how to solve this crisis.
Congress will soon turn to reauthorizing our nations’ food programs under the 2023 Farm Bill. On the heels of the second national forum on hunger, this legislation will provide a critical opportunity to advance and institutionalize the serious, comprehensive policies needed to end hunger.
The need for strong national anti-hunger policies has grown even more pressing in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights in the Dobbs decision earlier this year. The court’s reversal of reproductive rights also amounts to a war on women’s ability to manage the size of their families, further tightening the economic pressure on women.
In communities across America, the holidays inspire food drives, meals served to the unhoused and donations to food pantries. But by enacting a broad and thoughtful national strategy to end hunger, we can envision a future where the season’s holidays no longer require a tradition of well-meaning interventions by an overwhelmed charitable sector.
Heading into the holidays, I am confident that if our national leadership acts, we can bridge our nation’s abundance with those who experience the desperation and indignity of hunger. And if our leaders respond to the realities of hunger, they will not only move us toward an end to hunger but also an end to the feminization of poverty. Then all families will be truly food-secure—not just at the holidays, but every day of the year.