Today millions of Americans return home to feast and be thankful for the blessings of family and prosperity. And to be sure, there is much in America to be thankful for on this last Thanksgiving of the century. Our country is more prosperous now than in many generations. We have record low unemployment, inflation is in check, we have record profits on Wall Street, and home ownership is at historic highs.
But just as we give thanks for these blessings of abundance, we should also be aware that the sharing of this national bounty has been very unequal. On this Thanksgiving, nearly 4 million people--more than the entire population of Chicago--will have turkey dinner in a soup kitchen or emergency shelter. That is but a fraction of the 31 million Americans who are hungry or near hunger in our country.
America's Second Harvest knows something about the cruel paradox of hunger in the midst of unprecedented American prosperity. Our network of food banks and more than 50,000 local charities helped feed 26 million needy people last year. When I tell people this they're understandably shocked. That is, after all, one in 10 Americans. And when they learn that requests for emergency food have gone up 14 percent in the past year and that the 1 billion pounds of food we distribute to the poor are not enough to meet demand, the paradox becomes real.
Nearly half of the local hunger relief charities served by our food banks have been forced to stretch food resources in the past year. That means a needy family gets food rationed from its local church pantry, a meal at the synagogue for poor seniors is made sparse, a soup kitchen closes its doors, and in the worst cases they simply turn the hungry away. Nearly 1 million hungry Americans were turned away last year because the charity they turned to for help, often their place of last refuge, had no food.
The face of hunger in America is changing. Hunger today is no longer just a problem of inner cities or the Mississippi Delta. In fact, hunger and poverty are growing fastest in America's burgeoning suburbs. That is where many of the new jobs are for the unskilled, the undereducated, and those trying desperately to make ends meet without welfare support or day care or medical insurance.
Today the face of the person in a soup kitchen line is as likely to be that of a working mother as it is a homeless man. Worse yet, one out every five people in that soup kitchen line is now a child. Nearly 40 percent of all the households food banks serve include someone working, and more than half of those work full-time.
Fourteen million working poor families in America live paycheck to paycheck, walking a tightrope of job and family without a safety net of support in case something goes wrong. They work, sometimes at two jobs, without health benefits, without access to affordable day care or housing.
In fact, 28 percent of the people served by food banks had to choose between filling prescriptions and getting medical care or buying food. Another 35 percent had to choose between rent and food. Most choose to go hungry rather than become homeless. Those are decisions that no American should have to make.
Fortunately, hunger in America is solvable, with the solution in everyone's hands. People can donate their time, extra food, or money to hunger relief efforts. But we know that is not enough. Lending a hand at a food drive or donning an apron at a soup kitchen will help satisfy someone's hunger today, but it won't solve the problem over the long term. As a people, we also have a collective responsibility to the needs of the vulnerable through government action. We are our brother's keeper.
Yet some of the most important anti-hunger programs, such as food stamps, WIC, school meals, summer feeding and food distribution programs, have been woefully underfunded. No elderly person should have to suffer the pangs of hunger behind closed doors. No child in America should go to bed hungry.
As a nation we have had many blessings in what has been called the "American Century." But we leave this century with work undone, with one in nine of us hungry, one in eight poor. We can do better, and we are all part of the solution. Let's commit, and urge our public officials to commit, to saving a place at America's table for all of our people.
The writer is president and CEO of the hunger-relief charity America's Second Harvest.