1 In 6 Food Charities Could Close Down Soon, And 5 Other Disturbing Facts From A New Hunger Report

Expiration dates are a luxury America’s neediest cannot afford. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Every four years, Feeding America releases its massive “Hunger In America” (HIA) study to document how millions of volunteers and tens of thousands of anti-hunger charities bring aid to the tens of millions of people who live on the brink of hunger in the planet’s richest country. The newest HIA, released Monday, reports that 46.5 million people in 15.5 million households received food from the roughly 58,000 separate programs operated by the network’s affiliates.

Those topline statistics are upsetting on their own, but many more troubling numbers are buried underneath them. A fifth of the households Feeding America serves include a current or former member of the armed forces. Four in 10 of them include a child. Their median annual income is just $9,175, less than one fifth the median earnings for American families overall. These numbers tell a story of American hunger that is tragic but not surprising: past headlines have warned about high food insecurity nationwide, among children, and within our armed forces.

At about 160 pages, though, the HIA sports many other easily-overlooked numbers that add detail to the broader story. Here are six of the most disturbing facts from Feeding America’s study.

1. About 1 in 6 Feeding America charities are worried they’ll have to shut down.

The study confirms what hunger experts were saying during last summer’s fight over food stamps cuts: charities are already stretched beyond their capacity. In late 2012 and early 2013, “almost 28 percent of programs reported having less food available than required to meet client needs,” the HIA notes. The vast majority of Feeding America’s affiliated programs provide uncooked food rather than cooked meals, and a full third of such “grocery programs” said they didn’t have enough food in stock to keep up with community needs. With the network already that far from being able to meet the needs of America’s deprived, the last thing Feeding America needs is a significant contraction in the number of charity programs in operation.

But that’s exactly what the 2014 HIA warns of: Nearly 16 percent of the total agencies in the network are worried about having to close their doors. This is largely because these groups are so reliant on individual donations for their funding, which makes them vulnerable to economic downturns. Almost 11,000 individual agencies — nearly a quarter of Feeding America’s total agency partners — reported some form of service reduction in the previous year. One in every 8 agencies that works with Feeding America cut their hours of operation in order to stay afloat; one in every 9 cut back the geographic area they serve; and one in every 11 laid off staff — a move the report calls “particularly notable” given that half of Feeding America agencies don’t have any paid staff to begin with. (These agencies all rely upon volunteers, and the numbers on voluntarism offer a silver lining of sorts: “In a typical month, nearly 2 million volunteers dedicate more than 8.4 million hours of their time to hunger relief,” the report says.)

More than 1 in 5 of the groups that made reductions are “very worried” about being able to continue to operate, and over two-thirds of them are either very or somewhat worried. Most of the worried agencies cite a lack of funding as the biggest threat to their existence.

2. Millions are forced to eat expired food.

To cope with food insecurity, 56 percent of Feeding America client households eat expired food and almost 80 percent buy cheap, unhealthy options. About 35 percent reported pawning or selling their property, and four in 10 “water down food and drinks to make them last longer,” the study says. More than half of clients surveyed use a combination of three or more of these coping strategies to get through the month, and almost two-thirds rely on food charities for their monthly budgeting.

3. Tens of millions of people have to choose between buying food and keeping up with bills.

About 66 percent of Feeding America households reported choosing between food and health care spending at some point in the previous year. Almost six in 10 made trade-offs between food and housing expenses at least once, and nearly 70 percent traded off between food and paying utility bills. Extrapolated across more than 15 million households and 46.5 million individuals, those trade-off statistics mean that tens of millions of individuals faced these choices during the year. Even more shocking, 31 percent had to choose between food and health care every single month for the year.

4. There are nearly 5 million households who could be getting food stamps but aren’t.

Given the gutwrenching trade-offs and coping mechanisms Feeding America’s clients employ, it is striking to read that 32.5 percent of the households these charities serve are probably eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) but do not receive it. A fifth of households have never even applied. The report also notes that just 40 percent of the food programs in the network provide some form of assistance with SNAP enrollment, and just a third of that group does so automatically when a needy person shows up. Overall, that means that just one in seven programs will proactively push to enroll eligible clients in the premier federal anti-hunger program.

SNAP is hardly a cure-all for Feeding America clients, though. Among the nearly 55 percent of households who do get food stamps, a fifth exhaust their full month’s benefit within a week. Only a handful of SNAP recipients are able to make their food stamps last longer than three weeks. The program has been targeted for cuts in recent years despite record-high levels of hunger and food insecurity.

5. Men and women use the food charity system in very different ways.

About two-thirds of Feeding America’s clients are women, when the group calculates demographics for the whole 46.5 million-person pool. But the gender numbers flip almost all the way around for programs that serve prepared meals. Men make up 57.5 percent of clients at Feeding America meals programs and fewer than 30 percent of clients at grocery programs.

6. The families that rely on food charities are almost never homeless.

You might think that families who need food banks and meal kitchens to get through the month are indigent, drifting from one temporary shelter situation to another. Indeed, about a million of them are. But 93 percent of Feeding America client households are in permanent housing. Over 15 percent own their home and are making mortgage payments, and 11.5 percent own their homes free and clear. About three-quarters of clients have lived in the same place for the past year, meaning that the majority of people who need Feeding America’s help are living relatively stable lives. The foreclosure crisis makes an appearance in the HIA as well: 16 percent, or roughly one food charity client out of every six, has been foreclosed or evicted at some point in the last five years. There is a big disparity here between those “grocery” programs that provide uncooked ingredients and the “meal” programs that feed people directly. Meal programs make up just 14 percent of Feeding America’s offerings around the country, so the fact that a third of all meal program clients lack permanent housing doesn’t shift the overall housing numbers very far.